Before Japan’s elections on Dec. 16, China increased tensions over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, with the result that Japanese public opinion took a turn to the right in opposition to China, dealing the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — the most pro-Chinese Japanese party ever — and other pro-Chinese candidates a severe blow.
Why did China create further tension with Japan? A statement circulating on the Internet might provide the answer.
The statement reads: “In the past, strong foreign powers invaded China, but faced with China’s rise, ‘weaker’ foreign powers are now bullying China.”
What a tragedy. Of course they must fight back, and Japan is one of those weaker foreign powers. International conventions on marine demarcation made after World War II were basically created for the weaker countries that had just managed to shake off imperial rule to help them resist the strong powers.
In 1945, the US, a strong power, proclaimed that the continental shelf off the coast of the US was under its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, US fishing boats repeatedly entered Latin American waters citing the “principle of the freedom of the high seas.”
The continental shelf off the coast of weaker countries, such as Chile, is relatively narrow, but they were still unable to protect this area. Instead, Chile claimed maritime rights within a 200 nautical mile (370km) zone and expanded the extent of their territorial waters against the US proclamation.
The US was opposed to these declarations, and at the time, China strongly supported the weaker countries to fight US hegemony.
Now, faced with the East China Sea dispute, Japan believes that since the waters between it and China are less than 400 nautical miles wide — twice the size of the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone — the waters should be divided by a midline.
This approach is more in line with the tradition of weaker countries, while China’s claim that the line should be drawn along the continental shelf is in line with the approach of a strong power.
When China proposed its demarcation plan for the area to the UN, it emphasized that it was drafted in accordance with international conventions and it argues for the plan forcefully.
Today, several other weaker countries have joined the “bullying” of China. In addition to Japan, there is South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei. Their exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea and China’s U-shaped line have a high degree of overlap.
When the UN requested that each country submit its own demarcation plans in 2009, they proposed plans based on detailed measurements in accordance with the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf.
However, China opposes such plans and says that it has indisputable sovereignty, rights and jurisdiction over the islands and waters in the area. It also reserves its right to submit to the UN its preliminary information indicative of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
Beijing still has not submitted this information to the UN, and it demands one-on-one negotiations with the other countries involved.
Even some Chinese Internet users comment that Beijing’s 2009 submission of the “outer limits of the continental shelf in the East China Sea” was decent and convincing. So why does it not now follow the same standards in the South China Sea, instead of adopting the opposite approach?
The reason is quite simple. The U-shaped area that China claims in the South China Sea covers 2.1 million square kilometers. It makes up the “central basin” of the South China Sea, and it is surrounded by sloping continental shelf, which is as deep as 5km. The James Shoal (Zengmu Shoal, 曾母暗沙) at the southernmost tip of the area is more than 2,000km from China, a distance several times the length of the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or the 350km extent of the continental shelf.
There are rich deposits of oil and gas in the South China Sea. China estimates that the U-shaped area could hold as much as one-third of China’s oil and gas, but most of these resources are concentrated on the continental shelf within 100 nautical miles of the coasts of the weaker countries in the southern and southeastern South China Sea.
These countries have more than 1,000 oil wells producing 50 million tonnes per year, while China’s wells have so far produced neither a drop of oil nor a whiff of gas.
If we demarcate the area in accordance with the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the Continental Shelf, all the waters with rich oil and gas deposits belong to the weaker countries, while China only has the waters on the northern continental shelf, where there is much less oil and gas, not to mention that the area is less than one-third of the U-shaped area.
Hence, Beijing is opposed to marine demarcation based on either a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or a 350km continental shelf.
Moreover, strong powers are in favor of freedom of the seas, while weaker countries favor an expansion of their sovereign territorial waters. Today, China is treating the South China Sea as part of its own territorial waters, and it is behaving as a weaker country in its unlimited expansion of its sovereign territorial waters.
It attempts to expand the area by 2,000km, all the way to the doorstep of the weaker countries. It is more dominating than any hegemonic power, and it even includes international sea lanes in its claims.
After the UN Charter, the Convention on the Law of the Sea has the highest number of signatory states. Although China signed it to fight US hegemony and support the weaker countries at the time, it refuses to accept international jurisdiction or arbitration for the current marine demarcation. Meanwhile, it appeals to the convention to protest its rights in the East China Sea.
Thus, it is switching status between that of a weaker country, a strong power and a superpower as it sees fit. It only abides by laws that are favorable to its own interests and does not abide by any unfavorable laws.
As for the Chinese people, they merely echo Liu Huaqing (劉華清), the father of the modern Chinese navy, in claiming that China is not bullying the weaker countries, but that it is the other way round.
In its attempts to resist the weaker countries, this rising power has launched an aircraft carrier and spread panic among these weaker countries because they do not know how to interact with China.
The result is that they have to purchase more arms and turn to the US to balance the situation.
No one knows how this chaotic situation will end. The defeat of Japan’s pro-Chinese regime and the anti-China-fueled turn to the right is likely just the prelude to the main act.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Eddy Chang