A South China Sea Showdown

REUTERS/Stringer

you can try here In April, the Philippines released photographs of Chinese construction projects working to build artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. This process of creating new land, of “reclaiming” it from the ocean, is not a new one. Many countries in Asia have reclaimed vast stretches of land in the past decades. In the past, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have all reclaimed land in the South China Sea. Singapore has expanded by 22% since 1965. In fact, China found itself late to the game. The country is an upstart competitor in the world of land reclamation, having only stepped up their reclamation efforts in 2013. What has sparked outrage from neighboring countries, most recently at an ASEAN security forum, is the pace by which Chinese land reclamation has proceeded. In the past eighteen months China has reclaimed 1,200 hectares of land. For comparison, China’s neighbors have only reclaimed one hundred hectares in the last 45 years.

can i buy provigil in canada For China, this project has geopolitical significance as well as economic significance. The South China Sea has the potential for nearby natural resources and is also a major shipping route, but this is not China’s primary motivation. Instead, China’s building projects appear to be part of a territorial claim or an attempt to legitimize its disputed Nine-Dash Line. This U-Shaped demarcation line was advanced in the 1940s by the Chinese government and encompasses a huge expanse containing not only the Spratly Islands, but also the Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Islands, and waters stretching up the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Borneo. China barely enforced this claim, but in 2012 Beijing reclassified the South China Sea as a “core national interest”. China is prepared to defend its sovereignty.

China’s island-building in the South China Sea and its territorial claims have pitted Beijing’s interests against Washington’s. The U.S. stresses the importance of freedom of navigation in the region. At a recent ASEAN meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored that “the United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea.” The U.S. has, however, avoided entering the waters China claims, to the chagrin of the navy. While the U.S. has an interest in protecting this freedom, China is attempting to assert its sovereignty. In a daily press brief, foreign affairs ministry spokesman Hua Chunying was asked by the BBC why China was reclaiming land. Using the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands, she answered: “China asserts indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters, and China’s activities on relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands fall entirely within China’s sovereignty and are totally justifiable.”

Land reclamation in the South China Sea is part of the Chinese strategy to shift the security landscape in the region. At the same time as it began pursuing ocean reclamation, Beijing also asserted its sovereignty in other ways. In November 2013, China announced it was introducing new air traffic restrictions over most of the East China Sea by creating an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Notably, about half of the area of the zone overlaps with a Japanese ADIZ, including the airspace of the Senkaku/Diayo islands. To a lesser extent, it also overlaps with a Taiwanese and a Korean ADIZ. The international response was similar to that over land reclamation. Many countries, including Japan, Korea, Australia and the U.S. criticized this as a unilateral action intended to change the status quo, and multiple countries summoned their diplomats in response.

For Shen Dingli, a professor of international studies at Fudan University, this reflects a larger question of how the international system will respond to China’s rise, and especially how the U.S. will respond. Offering recommendations for Foreign Affairs, he writes: “Historical narratives in Beijing, Washington, and other capitals in the region reflect diverging views over what Asia’s security order should be. Will the Asia-Pacific region’s security be contingent on ongoing American dominion or will a Chinese-led security architecture emerge? This very question tests Washington’s willingness and ability to accept Beijing’s proposal for a “new type of major power relations. ”

This issue also tests China’s ability and willingness to work within the current international system. The future of disputes in the South China Sea offers clues into the future of China’s ‘peaceful rise’, amid claims that conflicting interests will ultimately lead to war. The conflict with the Philippines over the Spratlys and the Nine-Dash Line highlights Beijing’s current approach to international law. After failed negotiations with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines decided to take their case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In one of the first cases where a party refused to participate in international legal proceedings since the 1986 International Court of Justice case Nicaragua vs. United States, Beijing expressed disinterest in appearing before the PCA in the Hague.  Although China will not appear in court, the country is still party to the case. The court’s decision will ultimately be legally binding on China, as the country signed and ratified the UNCLOS. However, China can simply choose not to comply with the court’s decision, as the country’s decision not to participate would indicate. Beijing may decide it does not want to be constrained by international laws.

This position would be unwise. China’s rise has resulted in greater economic dependence on the country, but China’s growing assertiveness, and its disregard for international law, has led neighbors and other great powers to view it with suspicion. Continuing on this current path could be injurious to China’s interests, undermining the country’s credibility and soft power.

Though a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration looms in the future, the current U.S. response may have an even greater impact. To back up its rhetoric that the U.S. will continue to pursue freedom of navigation, U.S. analysts began to call for “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPS) sailing within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands. This would make clear that the U.S. does not recognize China’s territorial claims. The Obama administration’s initial response was underwhelming. In June, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs gave a public briefing in which he said “As important as [the] South China Sea is… it’s not fundamentally an issue between the U.S. and China.” In an about-face, it now appears that the U.S. Navy will shortly begin Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.

This has the potential to escalate the conflict, though to what extent remains to be seen. As the U.S. waited for several months, Beijing’s claims have become more entrenched and more strident. In an October 16th article, China’s official press agency Xinhua claimed that FONOPS “could lead to dangerous misunderstanding between the two militaries,” and warned that China “will respond to any provocation appropriately and decisively.” Admiral Yang Yi has also recently warned that the PLA would deliver a “head-on blow” to foreign forces which violate China’s sovereignty. It is clear that this move will only further heighten U.S.-China tensions. China can claim that the U.S. is the party responsible for militarizing the South China Sea, and now has an excuse to respond in kind. These actions further support Chinese nationalist rhetoric that depicts America’s actions as hypocritical and aggressive.

While Beijing’s response to FONOPS is not yet clear, it will likely only further alarm other regional powers and Washington’s foreign policy hawks. As tensions escalate in the South China Sea, a resolution to this conflict becomes less and less likely.