China plays long game in off­shore ter­ri­tory claims that irk US, ASEAN

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Gor­don Brown

China’s in­creas­ingly bel­li­cose ter­ri­to­rial claims to most of the South China Sea were skated over dur­ing Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s just ended first state visit to the United States, but ten­sion over this ma­jor mar­itime is­sue is likely to in­crease once he is back in Bei­jing, an­a­lysts say.

The US State Depart­ment made ref­er­ence to China’s se­lec­tive ad­her­ence to in­ter­na­tional law by ig­nor­ing mar­itime rules, but Washington was seem­ingly more con­cerned with other is­sues – such as cy­ber hack­ing of US sys­tems and cli­mate change – dur­ing Xi’s visit.

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is still at a loss about how to curb China’s as­sertive­ness in the South China Sea, where Bei­jing has con­tin­ued to re­claim land for po­ten­tial mil­i­tary use de­spite con­flict­ing claims with its neigh­bors,” Reuters said.

China’s ter­ri­to­rial claims in the sea was on the sum­mit agenda but did ap­pear in a White House post-meet­ing fact sheet, The Diplo­mat noted. “In their joint press con­fer­ence Obama and Xi did noth­ing more than re­it­er­ate their re­spec­tive po­si­tions. The two sides re­main far apart on the is­sue,” the Tokyo-based Asia-Pa­cific mag­a­zine said,

How­ever, the US Congress is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly irked about South China Sea prob­lems which di­rectly and in­di­rectly af­fect most, if not all, of the ten mem­ber coun­tries of ASEAN, the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions.

“Once Xi re­turns home af­ter speak­ing at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly in New York on Septem­ber 28 ten­sion in the sea could well es­ca­late,” the China Oil & Gas Mon­i­tor said last week. “And the ten­sion is more likely to be gen­er­ated by Washington rather than any of the South­east Asian cap­i­tals which ob­ject to Bei­jing’s so-called nine dash line that in ef­fect puts most of the 3.5 mil­lion square kilo­me­tres of sea in­side Chi­nese ter­ri­tory.”

The self-pro­claimed line would give China the rights to most of the oil and gas thought to lie un­tapped un­der the sea although it di­rectly clashes with counter claims by Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Malaysia, Brunei, Tai­wan and prob­a­bly also In­done­sia.

“In the run up to Xi’s of­fi­cial visit to the US and the UN, start­ing Septem­ber 22, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary mon­i­tors have been leak­ing re­ports to US friendly media about China’s ac­tiv­i­ties in the sea,” the Mon­i­tor said. “Re­ports car­ried by the Wall Street Jour­nal and the In­ter­na­tional

Busi­ness Times, among oth­ers, showed photos supplied by the US Pen­tagon from air sur­veil­lance. They fo­cus on China ar­ti­fi­cially ex­pand­ing the size of some of the is­lands it lays claim to in the sea, no­tably the Spratlys.”

China has ex­panded the Spratlys by at least 1,200 hectares through land recla­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to the re­ports. The re­sults of the sur­veil­lance have now sparked de­mands in the US Congress for a Washington re­sponse.

Thirty Congress mem­bers from both main par­ties have signed a let­ter to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama call­ing on him to chal­lenge China’s “ar­ti­fi­cial for­ma­tions” in the South China Sea.

“Amer­i­can voices have ques­tioned China’s com­mit­ment to up­hold­ing the in­ter­na­tional or­der,” said the US news web­site World Pol­i­tics Re­view on Septem­ber 24. “Western com­men­ta­tors have pointed out how China con­tin­ues to se­lec­tively pick and choose to sup­port those as­pects of the in­ter­na­tional or­der that work to its ad­van­tage, while cir­cum­vent­ing or seek­ing to re­vise those as­pects that do not – such as in­ter­na­tional laws re­gard­ing mar­itime dis­putes.”

The con­gres­sional anger comes as a new study by risks as­ses­sors Busi­ness Mon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional (BMI) names the South China Sea “tin­der­box” as one of the world’s top ten ter­ri­to­rial hotspots over con­tentious oil and gas ex­plo­ration rights.

“South East Asia will re­main one of the most volatile re­gions in the world over the com­ing years, with the South China Sea a par­tic­u­lar flash­point made even more febrile by the pres­ence of sig­nif­i­cant oil and gas re­sources un­der the seabed,” the BMI study said.

“Bei­jing has be­come more as­sertive in its mar­itime claims since 2010, lead­ing to ten­sions with Viet­nam and the Philip­pines in par­tic­u­lar. The main dis­putes have cen­tred on the Para­cel Is­lands (claimed by China, Viet­nam and Tai­wan) and the Spratly Is­lands (claimed in part by China, the Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Tai­wan, Malaysia and Brunei),” it said. “The sim­mer­ing ten­sions are ex­ac­er­bated by the like­li­hood that the South China Sea, par­tic­u­larly around the Spratly Is­lands, holds sig­nif­i­cant oil and gas re­serves.”

BMI also sees US ally Ja­pan in­creas­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion as it de­vel­ops a more vis­i­ble for­eign pol­icy along with its grow­ing eco­nomic and fi­nan­cial aid to South­east Asia.

How­ever, oth­ers think the US would be ill-ad­vised to mess with Bei­jing over the sea claims.

“These [US] politi­cians may un­der­es­ti­mate the zeal of China’s na­tion­al­ist move­ment and the lead­er­ship’s need to ac­com­mo­date it to main­tain le­git­i­macy,” a noted an­a­lyst wrote in the South China Morn­ing Post on Septem­ber 21.

“China has pub­licly po­si­tioned its sovereignt­y and claims in the South China Sea as a mat­ter of na­tional dig­nity. This will make it very dif­fi­cult for China’s lead­er­ship to back down,” said Mark Va­len­cia, re­search pro­fes­sor at the Na­tional In­sti­tute for South China Sea Stud­ies.

The US gov­ern­ment and its mil­i­tary chiefs would be ill ad­vised to take any ac­tion based on the de­mands of the US con­gres­sional let­ter, said Va­len­cia a mar­itime pol­icy spe­cial­ist for­merly with the Mar­itime In­sti­tute of Malaysia and a vis­it­ing se­nior an­a­lyst at Ja­pan’s Ocean Pol­icy Re­search Foun­da­tion.

It should be noted, how­ever, that the Na­tional In­sti­tute for South China Sea Stud­ies is a Chi­nese state-spon­sored think tank based in Hainan, China’s is­land province on the phys­i­cal front line of off­shore ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes with Viet­nam.

Bei­jing said in Au­gust it had halted all con­tro­ver­sial recla­ma­tion work in dis­puted sea ter­ri­tory, but the Wall Street Jour­nal quoted un­named Pen­tagon of­fi­cials call­ing on China to de­clare if the halt was per­ma­nent.

While in Washington, Xi de­fended his gov­ern­ment’s “right to up­hold our own ter­ri­to­rial sovereignt­y” but re­futed sug­ges­tions it in­tended to use its is­land-build­ing ef­forts to cre­ate mil­i­tary bases, Reuters re­ported.

It may be that the recla­ma­tion work has stopped while the Philip­pines’ gov­ern­ment seeks ar­bi­tra­tion over the con­flict­ing Spratlys own­er­ship claims at the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion in The Hague.

The case be­gan in July but Bei­jing re­fuses to par­tic­i­pate on the grounds that it be­lieves Manila has no le­gal grounds to chal­lenge China’s rights in the Spratlys.

Washington has said it is not tak­ing sides in the Philip­pines case, how­ever, at the end of last year the US State Depart­ment made a state­ment which in ef­fect said China’s nine dash line claims are in con­flict with in­ter­na­tional law. The depart­ment said as China and the Philip­pines are sig­na­to­ries to the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea they should both abide by the ar­bi­tra­tion court’s even­tual de­ci­sion.

Such ter­ri­to­rial claims cases have a habit of last­ing years and it’s in­con­ceiv­able that Bei­jing will halt its recla­ma­tion ac­tiv­i­ties or hy­dro­car­bons sur­veys in dis­puted zones pend­ing an out­come, the Mon­i­tor com­mented.

The Philip­pines gov­ern­ment is up­set over China’s en­croach­ment in the South China Sea.

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