Power scramble in the China seas

By Jonathan Power

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s economic miracle, said the intractable problems of which country owns what in the East and South China Seas should be left to the next generation. He was right. China should keep kicking that can of worms down the road.
The recent surprise declaration that a huge swathe of international air space above the East China Sea be part of a new Chinese “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ) is counterproductive. The zone includes the Senaku/Diaoyu islands, claimed by by both China and Japan. The ADIZ demands that any aircraft flying across it must seek permission from China.

What does history say? In 1971 the US post-war occupation regime returned the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to Japan and China did not object. But, according to Meiji era documents unearthed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, in 1885 Japan acknowledged China as the owner.

More relevant for today’s world is that China is not honouring the Law of the Sea which came into effect in 1995 after decades of negotiation and is meant to be the last word on sea claims. It defines territorial waters and the exclusive economic zones which stretch to 200 miles from the coastline. When the continental shelf extends further, the limit is 400 miles. Most nations of the world, including China and Japan, have ratified the law. The US has not although it abides by it. The treaty compels states to surrender the majority of their historical claims in favour of the maritime zones awarded under the convention.

China also insists there is, what it calls, a “Nine-Dashed Line” that encompasses all of the South China Sea. Beijing insists that its historic maps show it is a valid claim. It argues that this has been so since the 15th century. But its contours are vague and it’s not recognised under international law. Today China controls in the South China Sea the Paracels islands and 15 reefs and shoals within the Spratlys. Both islands probably have in their waters large deposits of oil, gas and minerals. The shipping lanes of the South China Sea are estimated to carry more than half the world’s trade.

The ADIZ flare up is not the first row of the last couple of years. In April 2012 a Philippine warship found Chinese fishing boats close into the Scarborough reef, a submerged shoal of rocks in the South China Sea that the Philippines claim. The fishermen called in two Chinese civilian patrol boats. Beijing persuaded the Philippines to withdraw their warship and replace it with a civilian coastguard ship. But China did not withdraw either its fishing boats nor its patrol boats.

A report by the International Crisis Group points out that “the proliferation of domestic actors and the complicated structure behind Chinese management of the [multiple sea] issues has often been described with reference to the traditional myth of nine dragons stirring up the sea.” There is a bulky Chinese bureaucracy dealing with sea issues which includes 11 ministerial level government agencies. Then there are the powerful national oil companies.

Apparently the ruling politburo for years did not give any directives and the foreign ministry lacked the clout to bring them into line, although it has to assume responsibility when dealing with the outside world. Its work is complicated by the lack of legal clarity, growing nationalist opinion within China, the belief that economic growth and political stability at home outweigh foreign policy and that a vociferous military outranks the foreign ministry, even not reporting some of its decisions to the politburo. But now it seems that President Xi Jinping is stamping his own authority on sea policy.

China loses much credibility with its refusal to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice or the international arbitration tribunal that is part of the Law of the Sea. Already China is refusing to cooperate with the latter after the Philippines took its disputes over the “9-Dashed Line” and Scarborough cases to it. Not only that, it has adopted a bullying tone, attempting to persuade the Philippines to withdraw its submissions.

A few years ago Nigeria took its dispute with neighbouring Cameroon over the oil-rich Bokassa peninsular to the International Court of Justice. It lost and President Olusegun Obasanjo gracefully turned over the territory to Cameroon, including its sea riches.

China should loose no time in sorting out its bureaucratic and political mess and take these divisive issues to either the International Court of Justice or the Law of the Sea’s arbitration panel. On the merits of these disputes China is almost totally isolated. If it wants respect, demanding ownership of islands and rocks or setting up the ADZ is the last way to earn it.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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