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