Thursday, February 9, 2023

Only Chinese suzerainty matters

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That is the message behind China’s belligerent reaction to an adverse ruling by an international arbitration court over the South China Sea. Its sole agenda is dominance over seas. 

By Meha Mathur

The Indian Ocean is not India’s backyard and upholding this perception could trigger clashes, a Chinese military official had warned India a year ago, on July 1, 2015. The counter-question that the world needs to pose is: is the South China Sea China’s backyard, that it ignores the claims of Philippines, Indonesia, and other nations in the region?

Exactly a year later, as an international tribunal based in The Hague rules against China’s sole claim to the South China Sea and its aggressive posture, China remains defiant in the face of the ruling. It is now amply clear who treats international waters as its backyard.

The tribunal ruled that China had no historic basis for staking claim to the South China Sea, and faulted it for aggravating tensions in the region. But Beijing dismissed the ruling as biased and “paid for”. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said: “China’s aim is to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.” He cautioned that the region could be converted into a “cradle of war” if countries tried to interfere in the maritime dispute. 


A look at the region’s geography makes the claims of other littoral nations understandable. The sea is flanked to the east by the Philippines in the immediate neighborhood, to the west by Vietnam, to the north at a considerable distance by China and Taiwan, and to the south by Malaysia and Indonesia. At the centre of the controversy are two groups of islands—Paracels and Spratlys, the Scarborough shoal and a number of other small islands and reefs. There is a possibility of the Paracel and Spratlys, geographically close to the Philippines, possessing huge reserves of oil and natural gas (for that matter the entire region could be possessing billions of barrels of untapped oil and natural gas).

A ship (right) of Vietnam Marine Guard seen near a ship of the Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea. Photo:UNI
A ship (right) of Vietnam Marine Guard seen near a ship of the Chinese Coast Guard in the South China Sea. Photo:UNI

The fishing resources are another important economic asset. But equally important, the sea is an important trading route, and countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia depend upon it for their supplies and exports. For the superpower to claim hegemony over the sea route would be detrimental to the burgeoning economies of South East Asia.

China has staked historical claim to Paracel and Spratlys, stating that the two constituted part of its territory for centuries. It has done so on the strength of a 1947 map and through a “nine-Dash line” showing the Chinese boundary. But other claimants contest the map.


Satellite imagery of China creating new islands and increasing the size of existing islands, and constructing ports, air strips and other military installations in the Spratly and other islands has caused concern among the global community. In 2012, it wrested control over the Scarborough Shoal following a stand-off with the Philippines. In May 2014, when the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation started drilling operations 120 miles from the Vietnam coast, it upset Vietnam as the location was close to the disputed Triton Islands. In the ensuing conflict between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels, a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk.

A map showing the South China Sea region. Source Wikipedia
A map showing the South China Sea region. Source: Wikipedia

The conflict has also drawn global and regional powers into the picture and has led to escalation of the arms race. The US has lifted its arms embargo against Vietnam to equip it militarily to deal with the Chinese threat. Japan, which had, in the aftermath of World War II, followed the policy of not engaging in conflicts on foreign soil, changed its security law in September 2015 to enable it to assist other allies in overseas conflicts. And now, India and the US have expanded the ambit of their annual naval “Malabar Exercises” to involve Japan too. This year, the exercise, involving Japan, took place in mid-June.

China’s one-upmanship in the region also runs contrary to international rules. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides for “Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), under which coastal countries enjoy sole exploitation rights over marine resources within a 200 nautical mile area.  It gives rights to both naval and military vessels of other countries to cross the area.

Historically, China regarded itself as the Middle Kingdom. It is clear that the Chinese have not shed that ethno-centric view. What matters to China, obviously, is territorial integrity over anything else, even at the cost of rightful claims of neighboring countries.


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