An op-ed in the Chinese-language editions of People’s Daily and Global Times says there are no international waters in the South China Sea and that China should act with strength to repel US interference in the contested area.
In the article, which appeared last week, Pan Guoping (潘國平), a law professor at China’s Southwest University of Law and Politics, disputes the claim that the South China Sea comprises gonghai (公海), or “high seas,” as the term is translated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
According to Article 86 of the convention, “high seas” refer to “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone [EEZ], in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State, or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic State.”
By denying the presence of high seas in the South China Sea, China would deny freedom of navigation and use of airspace to other countries over the entire area, which Pan made clear.
“The United States is only a passer-by in the South [China] Sea ... As a country that has no sea coast in the region, does the United States have freedom of navigation and flight in the South [China] Sea? The answer is no! There is no international water in the South [China] Sea,” he wrote.
“China should act with stronger force ... to resolutely repel [US] interference, defend China’s nine-dotted line area that history has bestowed to us,” Pan wrote, referring to the large U-shaped swathe of territory claimed by China that encompasses most of the South China Sea.
Miles Yu wrote in the Washington Times that the article was “the clearest statement to date indicating the official Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces are specifically denying international freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest and most crucial waterways that China claims as its exclusive sovereign water.”
However, China analysts remain divided on the extent to which editorials appearing in official Chinese media truly reflect official policy in Beijing. Some have said that unless a piece appears in print, electronic articles appearing on the People’s Daily, the Global Times and Xinhua news agency Web sites are of variable influence and quality, and part of an internal debate rather than a statement of official policy. Pan’s article appeared in print in the international edition of the People’s Daily.
Sources close to Pan said he was “patriotic” and nationalistic on some international issues, but doubted his views on the South China Sea were “mainstream” among international law experts and Chinese government officials. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether Beijing has embraced a policy shift on the applicability of the “high seas” in the South China Sea.
An op-ed in Global Times in September warned of a “sea of fire” if claimants to islands in the South China Sea continued to oppose China’s claims.
Asked to comment on Pan’s article, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei refused to go into detail, but reiterated the government’s long-held position that the Republic of China (ROC) has sovereignty over the region, that all claimants should set asides disputes and that the country would like to work with other countries to explore the region’s resources to jointly pursue peace and reciprocity.
James Tien (田中光), director-general of the ministry’s Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the ROC government’s assertion of sovereignty in the region was not in contradiction with US concerns over freedom of navigation.