Why South China Sea belongs to no countries but China

Posted on August 13, 2012


Experts reject Vietnamese author’s sovereignty claim over islands

A South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) manning the weather station in the Paracel island prior to being robbed by China in 1974.

Experts have rejected a recently published Vietnamese book that claims Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Nansha and Xisha islands in the South China Sea.

In the 400-page book titled Mark in the East Sea, the author Tran Cong Truc, former chairman of the Vietnamese government’s Committee for Boundaries, claimed that Vietnam established and exercised sovereignty over the Nansha and Xisha islands in the 17th century, Vietnam’s People’s Army Newspaper reported.

The book also claimed that Vietnam was “the first country in the world to possess” the Xisha and Nansha islands, the Hanoi-based Viet Nam News reported.

However, Truc’s claim was rejected by Li Guoqiang, deputy director with the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Xisha and Nansha islands because China discovered and named the area 2,000 years ago, which is much earlier than Vietnam,” Li said.

China’s fishing and voyaging in the area started as early as in the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC), and China started to have jurisdiction over the islands at least in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), according to Li.

He also pointed out that the islands that many Vietnamese history books claimed Vietnam discovered in the 17th century were actually not the Xisha and Nansha islands, but other islands and shoals near the coastal area of Vietnam.

In fact, the Vietnam government admitted China’s sovereignty over the Xisha and Nansha islands between the 1950s and 1970s, and Vietnam’s then prime minister Pham Van Dong even recognized China’s sovereignty over the area in an official letter in 1958 to the then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Li told the Global Times.

Zhuang Guotu, dean of the School for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, told the Global Times that Vietnam made repeated claims over the sovereignty of Xisha and Nansha islands because of the enormous economic benefits in the area, as well as the important geographic location of the area in international shipping.

By 2008, Vietnam had harvested more than 100 million tons of oil and 1.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in waters off the Nansha Islands, China Economic Weekly reported.

Ling Yuhuan

US should not send wrong message in South China Sea

Marking of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel archipelago prior to 1974

The US State Department issued a statement on Aug 3 that criticized China’s recent move to set up the city of Sansha and its garrison as “running counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risking further escalating tensions in the region”. Of course, the China refuted the criticism.

China enjoys undisputable sovereignty over the islands and their adjacent waters in the South China Sea. This is based on historical facts as well as relevant international laws. As early as 1959, China established the special office of Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha under the Guangdong province’s jurisdiction to exercise administration over the islands and their waters. Setting up the city of Sansha is just upgrading the previous administrative body to a new level.

Further, it is usual practice in China to establish a military garrison at the level of a city like Sansha. It has nothing to do with US interests, and the United States has no right to make comments like this. It cannot be viewed in China in any way other than as interference in China’s domestic affairs.

In recent months, the United States was busy with its so-called pivot to Asia, taking various measures and using every opportunity. With regard to the South China Sea disputes, the US stance seems to me to be self-contradictory.

On one hand, the US has announced time and again that the US takes no position towards the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and in spite of the Philippines’ repeated appeals, the US did not intervene directly in the dispute between China and the Philippines over Huangyan Island.

But on the other hand, the US has been actively engaging in “ASEANization” and internationalization of the disputes. Nevertheless, what happened at the recent ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh has already shown that the “ASEANization” of the issue gets nowhere. It can only trigger differences and splits among the ASEAN member countries. And the internationalization can only make the complicated issues even more complex. Now the US pivot strategy has already caused some confusion in the region, and the US should be very careful not to send any wrong and confusing messages in the region.

China’s new military garrison does not risk escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, but US intervention does. China and the United States have extensive common interests in the region. The improvement of their relationship serves the interests of both, while degradation of their relations hurts not only both, but also the interests of the whole region. The US should weigh the gains and losses carefully and not do things as described in a Chinese saying: “to lift a rock only to hurt one’s own foot”.

Here I also want to say something to some ASEAN countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. China has implemented a good-neighbor policy in past decades and has been restrained and conciliatory toward some Philippines and Vietnam actions that have actually encroached upon China’s sovereignty. It does not mean that China is weak. Neither does it mean that China will tolerate their unreasonable provocations indefinitely.

China cherishes her good relations with neighboring countries, and wants to have a favorable environment conducive to her modernization drive. But China is equally firm in defending her sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The disputes between China and these countries should be solved only in a peaceful way, through dialogue and consultation. The success of solving the land-border dispute between China and Vietnam and delimiting a border in Beibu Gulf has shown that they were able to solve the disputes by themselves without outside interference.

To attract or even rely on outside intervention is not a good tactic. It makes the issue more complicated, more difficult to solve. US intervention is not reliable. To build national interests by relying on US policy is a dangerous practice, as the US will not “pull chestnuts out of the fire” for anyone.

The world economic situation today is not stable. The financial crisis continues to fester. The Asia-Pacific region is relatively stable, and people throughout the world generally believe that this region is the most dynamic. To preserve peace and stability and promote common prosperity is where common interests of the United States, China and ASEAN countries lie.

To stir up the South China Sea disputes and exacerbate the situation in the region serves no one’s interests. To implement a good-neighbor policy is China’s fixed principle. This is a key part of China’s road to peaceful development. China is making various efforts to upgrade its economic cooperation with ASEAN countries to a new level. But China alone cannot do that.

The differences between China and the Philippines, and between China and Vietnam should not become a hurdle in their bilateral relations as well as in the relations between China and ASEAN. They should learn to control and manage the differences, to lower tensions, and together work for peace and development of the region, which will eventually benefit all involved.

Tao Wenzhao

China Asserts Sea Claim With Politics and Ships

Tension … a Chinese flag on a structure in the Spratlys. Photo: Reuters

HAIKOU, China — China does not want to control all of the South China Sea, says Wu Shicun, the president of a government-sponsored research institute here devoted to that strategic waterway, whose seabed is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. It wants only 80 percent.

Mr. Wu is a silver-haired politician with a taste for European oil paintings and fine furniture. He is also an effective, aggressive advocate for Beijing’s longstanding claim over much of the South China Sea in an increasingly fractious dispute with several other countries in the region that is drawing the United States deeper into the conflict.

China recently established a larger army garrison and expanded the size of an ostensible legislature to govern a speck of land, known as Yongxing Island, more than 200 miles southeast of Hainan. The goal of that move, Mr. Wu said, is to allow Beijing to “exercise sovereignty over all land features inside the South China Sea,” including more than 40 islands “now occupied illegally” by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

In the past several weeks, China has steadily increased its pressure, sending patrols with bigger ships and issuing persistent warnings in government-controlled newspapers for Washington to stop supporting its Asian friends against China.

The leadership in Beijing appears to have fastened on to the South China Sea as a way of showing its domestic audience that China is now a regional power, able to get its way in an area it has long considered rightfully its own. Some analysts view the stepped-up actions as a diversion from the coming once-a-decade leadership transition, letting the government show strength at a potentially vulnerable moment.

“They have to be seen domestically as strong and tough in the next few months,” Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said of the senior leadership. “They have to make sure they are not seen as weak.”

The Obama administration, alarmed at Beijing’s push, contends that the disputes should be settled by negotiation, and that as one of the most important trade corridors in the world, the South China Sea must enjoy freedom of navigation. The State Department, in an unusually strong statement issued this month intended to warn China that it should moderate its behavior, said that Washington believed the claims should be settled “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force.”

Washington was reacting to what it saw as a continuing campaign on the South China Sea after Beijing prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at its summit meeting in Cambodia in July, from releasing a communiqué outlining a common approach to the South China Sea.

The dispute keeps escalating. On July 31, the 85th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Defense Ministry heralded the occasion by announcing “a regular combat-readiness patrol system” for the waters in the sea under China’s jurisdiction.

The government then said it had launched its newest patrol vessel: a 5,400-ton ship. It was specifically designed to maintain “marine sovereignty,” said People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s leading newspaper.

Adding to the anxiety among China’s neighbors, a Chinese Navy frigate ran aground in July near a rocky formation known as Half Moon Shoal, in waters claimed by the Philippines. The accident raised questions about the competence of the Chinese Navy and suspicions about what the boat was doing there.

Mr. Wu, who is the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies as well as the director general of the Hainan provincial government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that none of China’s actions were untoward.

Interviewed in his spacious office decorated with landscape paintings from Italy and Russia, he had recently returned from a day of festivities for the expanded legislature and garrison on Yongxing Island.

Yongxing, a sand-fringed island of less than a square mile dominated by an airstrip that can handle midsize passenger jetliners, is part of what China calls the Xisha Islands. They are known as the Paracels in Vietnam, which also claims the territory.

A Boeing 737 flew special guests to the party, including the Communist Party chief for Hainan Province, to celebrate the newly inducted legislators, and the garrison, Mr. Wu said.

The increased military presence on the island makes the Philippines especially nervous because it thrusts China’s presence closer to the islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines claims as its own.

Since the 1990s, the approximately 620 Yongxing Island residents have enjoyed drinking water, electricity and air-conditioning, Mr. Wu said. The new 45-member legislature, which sits in a two-story brick building with pillars and a dome draped with blue and red bunting for the celebrations, is intended to issue laws on maritime issues, he said.

At Mr. Wu’s institute, here on Hainan Island in a handsome new building, visitors are invited into a modern screening room where they are greeted with a video that is a policy sales pitch. The video says that China enjoys maritime rights over “a vast area” of the South China Sea, though it does not specify how much. The 1.4 million square miles of the sea are “crucial to the future of China as a growing maritime nation,” since the sea is a trade conduit between China and the United States, Africa and Europe, the video says.

The deputy director of the institute, Liu Feng, said that China not only claimed sovereignty over most of the islands in the South China Sea, but also transportation, fishing and mineral extraction rights over “all waters within the nine-dash line.”

The nine-dash map, which appears in government documents and even in Air China’s in-flight magazine, is one of the central points of conflict in the South China Sea dispute. The U-shaped line south of China passes close to Vietnam, then around Malaysia and north to the Philippines. It was drawn by China before the Communist takeover but is not recognized by any other country.

On how long it would take China to win back the islands that it claims sovereignty over, Mr. Wu said he could not estimate. The other claimant countries were standing firm, he said. Moreover, the re-engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region “means we will have obstacles in solving the South China Sea questions between China and the relevant claimant states.”

The sustained attention to the South China Sea has been almost certainly coordinated from the senior ranks of the central government, Chinese analysts and Asian diplomats said. “Suddenly, the top leaders have taken a more hard-line policy,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy adviser to the State Council, China’s equivalent to the cabinet.

After the State Department criticized China’s actions, Beijing immediately accused Washington of taking sides with smaller Asian nations against China. On Aug. 4, the Foreign Ministry summoned Robert S. Wang, the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Beijing, and in an accompanying statement said the State Department had shown “total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message.”

Jane Perlez

China’s Rise Is A Big Reason to Ratify the Law of the Sea Convention

China’s rise adds to a growing list of reasons to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Senate ratification of the treaty, which sets out a legal framework for conduct in the world’s oceans, will put the United States in an even stronger position to preserve our freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas against any potential Chinese attempts to restrict our access, now and in the future. It will also allow us to be an even more forceful advocate for a rules-based process when it comes to territorial disputes in those waters and will lend Washington more credibility as it pushes China to follow international laws and norms.

Let’s start with that final reason.

Ratification puts the United States in a stronger position as it works to integrate China into the international system

If the United States ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention, we will have more credibility when we argue that China needs to become a “responsible stakeholder”—in the words of former President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick—in the international system.

America has been pressing Beijing to join international frameworks of rules and norms to create a level, predictable playing field for all; to bring China into the work of tackling shared threats across the world; and to ensure that China’s rise supports rather than disrupts the global system that America and our allies created after World War II. These rules and norms support international trade and economic integration across the world and helped enable China’s astronomical economic growth in recent decades.

It’s true the People’s Republic of China has come a long way since its early days when it totally shunned the international community—and vice versa. Today China is deeply engaged in the international system on a number of levels. In international venues such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the G-20, the Chinese show up, they are serious, and they often contribute constructively to policy questions.

Yet China still falls far short of its international commitments when it comes to World Trade Organization rules, international intellectual property standards, International Monetary Fund guidelines on its currency, and the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, to name a few important areas.

The tables are turned on the Law of the Sea: Because of our failure to ratify the convention, the United States stands outside the international system that we champion. China, 161 other nations, and the European Union have all ratified the convention. The United States remains a “nonparty” to the convention, along with a handful of other nations, including some political pariahs such as Syria, North Korea, and Iran.

It is difficult for America to be a credible champion of rules and norms in the international system when we have not signed on to the international law that governs what can happen in the oceans that cover nearly three-fourths of the planet.

Ratification gives us a stronger position as we navigate issues in the South China Sea

More specifically, ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention will lock in the terms that are extremely favorable to America in our disputes with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We currently have regular disagreements with the Chinese over where America’s military assets can travel in the oceans near China’s shores. The Law of the Sea would address these issues because it explicitly lays out rules and definitions in ways that the United States helped shape when the convention was written.

Now we have to take a very brief detour into maritime legal terms—don’t stop reading, I promise this won’t hurt. The Law of the Sea Convention provides clear definitions—ones that the United States prefers—of a state’s “territorial waters” and also its jurisdiction in the all-important “exclusive economic zone.”

Under the convention, a coastal state’s “territorial waters” start from its nautical baseline—basically where the ocean hits the shore at low tide—and extends 12 nautical miles out to sea.

The Law of the Sea convention says these territorial waters are part of the sovereign territory of the coastal state. This means coastal states can make laws that apply to activities on these waters and own any resources in the waters and the seabed, including fish and other sea life, oil, natural gas, and metals and minerals. (There is another “contiguous” zone 24 miles out that is relevant to immigration and health laws but not to this article.)

The next zone, extending out to 200 nautical miles from shore, is the nation’s exclusive economic zone. In this zone the coastal state has rights for the purposes of “exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living.” Other countries have freedoms of “navigation and over-flight,” among others.

Only the coastal state can therefore exploit its exclusive economic zone’s resources. But its domestic laws do not apply in the zone, and the coastal state cannot stop another country’s civilian or military ships from traveling through it.

The United States is not a party to the Law of the Sea Convention, but, ironically, we follow it in every respect because we believe it reflects “customary international law”—the law that has built up over the years based on what states actually do in the ocean. So when it comes to exclusive economic zones, the United States interprets the convention (and customary international law) to mean exactly what it says, which is that foreign ships have freedom of navigation in other countries’ exclusive economic zones.

China has a different—and hard to justify—interpretation of the convention. It asserts that it has jurisdiction over all foreign military activity in its exclusive economic zone. Unfortunately, in debates with China and others, the United States is forced to advance our arguments about these issues from a position of weakness. Our encounters with the Chinese on this subject go something like this:

Chinese official: Your Navy ships have no right to be in our exclusive economic zone without our permission.
American official: Yes they do. The U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, which reflects customary international law, provides that other states have freedom of navigation in exclusive economic zones.
Chinese official: You are not a party to convention, so it doesn’t matter what it says—you have no standing to make that argument.

As you can see, our discussions get sidetracked from the real issues into our inexplicable nonparty status. If America ratified the convention, we’d be in a much stronger position to assert our rights and contest China’s anomalous position—that America needs China’s permission for our military assets to travel in, above, and below China’s (substantial) exclusive economic zone, up to 200 miles from its shores.

The terms of the convention could change at any time

Here is another critical point: The 163 parties to Law of the Sea Convention could choose to change the convention’s terms at any time. After all, the convention as it stands today is not the same as earlier versions. In fact, there is a marked trend now toward coastal states claiming more jurisdiction over their adjacent waters than the current convention recognizes.

Chances are that any new version of the convention called for by Brazil, China, and other emerging coastal powers would push in favor of a more “Chinese” definition of exclusive economic zone transit rights. They might call for a larger zone with more limited rights for noncoastal states.

That would be a disaster for the United States. America, with the most powerful Navy in the world and trade links that span the globe, needs full freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans. If we do not ratify the Law of the Sea, we will have a very hard time stopping that kind of change, and the longer we wait, the weaker our position will be. We should lock in the beneficial rules—the ones that we helped draft—now.

As it is the United States follows customary maritime law. But customary law can also change over time in ways we cannot control. If the world’s other coastal states such as China start claiming that U.S. military assets can’t transit their exclusive economic zones without permission, that practice could enter customary maritime law. Then the United States would have a hard time arguing that it was going to ignore customary maritime law and instead follow the terms of a treaty that it had never ratified.

Ratifying now puts us in a stronger position on other critical issues in the South China Sea

Finally, the United States will have a stronger hand when it comes to the other issues at play in the South China Sea if it ratifies Law of the Sea. The United States has strong interests there in freedom of navigation and the maintenance of peace and stability.

Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam all have overlapping and conflicting claims over islands and shoals in the South China Sea—and thus over the substantial maritime rights that go along with them. While those disputes have been in the news lately with the standoff between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal, there are many similar contests.

Huge food and energy resources are at stake. Fish stocks in the region are horribly depleted and badly managed, but there is soaring demand for fish from growing populations in neighboring countries with rising wealth and more appetite for animal protein. The South China Sea has nearly one-tenth of the world’s fisheries used for human consumption, which is impressive considering its relatively small size. Hostile incidents are on the rise, as fishing boats enter disputed waters more often in search of their quarry, backed (tacitly or not) by their governments.

The stakes go even higher in terms of energy extraction. New technologies are now making it possible to explore and extract oil and natural gas from the deep ocean. And according to a recent report, the South China Sea likely “holds about 15.6 billion barrels of petroleum, of which about 1.6 billion barrels are recoverable.” Some Chinese estimates are higher by a factor of 10. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the seabed also holds nearly 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. These numbers are speculative, but even if they are partially accurate, they make the South China Sea a significant potential source for energy resources.

China claims as their “historical waters” more than three-fourths of the South China Sea, delineated by the so-called nine–dash line, pictured below.

These claims are generally considered outrageous by everyone except the Chinese, who have kept the justification for them (and the nature of the claims themselves) ambiguous. The Obama administration has done an admirable job of standing with other Southeast Asian countries trying to resist China’s pressure in these territorial disputes. The administration has called for a multilateral process based on the rule of law, rather than the bilateral approach Beijing prefers.

But the U.S. position would be much stronger if the United States could simply say that, “The U.N. Law of the Sea Convention should govern this dispute.” As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained in her recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

I’m sure you have followed the claims countries are making in the South China Sea. Although we do not have territory there, we have vital interests, particularly freedom of navigation. And I can report from the diplomatic trenches that as a party to the convention, we would have greater credibility in invoking the convention’s rules and a greater ability to enforce them.

The Chinese get a lot of mileage in conversations with Southeast Asian nations from the United States not being a party to the convention. (“How can the Americans tell us that Law of Sea Convention applies when they haven’t even ratified it?”) That’s why Secretary Clinton was joined by five Republican predecessors, who penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this past month asking for Senate ratification.

There is also the possibility that China will shift its strategy. Many think, for example, that Beijing will walk away from its nine-dash claim because the Law of the Sea does not recognize most maritime claims based on history. Others suggest that they will somehow argue that the convention doesn’t apply in the South China Sea.

The government of China is divided on this issue, and Beijing could choose to employ any number of other legal strategies. But no matter what, the United States and its partners can carefully and rationally push back on Beijing’s overreaching to the extent it occurs, if they are united in asserting that the Law of the Sea governs conduct in the world’s oceans.


Some senators have voiced concerns about preserving American sovereignty when it comes to the convention. But as has been written before, rigid interpretations of sovereignty are a double-edged sword when it comes to China. These arguments let China assert that its currency, its climate policy, its development policies—all issues that affect us—are sovereign matters on which it should consider no other country’s concerns.

Being in the strongest legal and diplomatic position we can with China is only one reason for America to sign on to Law of the Sea Convention. Also at stake is our ability to make claims on extended continental shelf areas in the Arctic and in other locales, and establish claims to deep-seabed regions that may contain deposits of rare-earth minerals.

Beyond all the good policy reasons, though, when the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Lockheed-Martin, the AFL-CIO, the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, AT&T, the American Petroleum Institute, ConocoPhillips, the United States Oil and Gas Association, the Boat Owners Association of the United States, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Secretary Clinton, former Secretaries of State Condolezza Rice and Colin Powell, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and President Barack Obama all agree that America should do something, shouldn’t we just do it?

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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