Leadership: A Permanent Part Of The Seascape


November 6, 2011: Vietnam and the Philippines announced recently that they were united in opposing Chinese efforts to claim control over all the small islands in the South China Sea. Both nations have had problems with China interfering with oil and gas exploration. For example, last May Vietnam accused China of ordering several of its marine surveillance ships to harass a Vietnamese oil exploration ship in the disputed Spratly islands. The Chinese ships cut cables let out by the Vietnamese ship, then actually got close enough to bump into the oil exploration vessel. The damage was light, but the message was unmistakable. Around the same time, China interfered with Philippines sponsored oil exploration in the Spratly Islands. This exploration work is being done 230 kilometers off the coast of the Philippine's Palawan Island, which is well within the internationally recognized "economic zone" that extends 371 kilometers from the coast. China denied such interference. China admitted that it has research ships in the area. All this is part of an effort by China to get the other Spratly claimants (Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan) to back off, but that has not worked so far. China, however, appears determined to have its way.

For example, China is telling the Philippines to halt oil exploration in the Spratly Islands, without saying exactly what would happen otherwise. The Philippines has asked the United States to help establish Filipino claims in the Spratly islands. China claims to own any oil and gas in the South China Sea. This claim is not recognized by any international agreement. China is apparently trying to bully other claimants (especially the Philippines and Vietnam) into staying away from these potential assets. All China offers is to "share" these undersea bonanzas. But the implication is that China will get most of the profits, with the other claimants getting little. China insists that the U.S. should stay out of this dispute, as it is not one of the claimants. The quarrel has sparked nationalist passions in both China and the Philippines. The United States has said it will stand by the Philippines, and now Vietnam has said it will as well.

This year ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nation) declared a code of conduct for the four ASEAN members and China, who are all disputing ownership of island in the South China Sea. This move is meant to persuade China to behave in the Spratlys. ASEAN was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and later expanded to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. All the ASEAN nations have some disputes with China, and are attempting to gain some negotiating leverage with joint efforts like this. China agreed, in 2002 , to cooperate with ASEAN over the Spratly dispute, but that was apparently all for show.

China is increasing efforts to take control over non-territorial waters that China technically has only economic control over (the exclusive economic zones, or EEZ). International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. However, the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there, and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has already claimed that foreign ships have been conducting illegal espionage in their EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control.

For the last two centuries, China has been prevented from exercising its "traditional rights" in nearby waters because of the superior power of foreign navies (first the cannon-armed European sailing ships, then, in the 19th century, newly built steel warships from Japan). However, since the communists took over China 60 years ago, there have been increasingly violent attempts to reassert Chinese control over areas that have long (for centuries) been considered part of the "Middle Kingdom" (or China, as in the "center of the world").

China is particularly concerned about the nearby Spratlys, a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land, but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel. China claims them all, but occupies only 8, Vietnam has occupied or marked 25, the Philippines 8, Malaysia 6, and Taiwan one.

China prefers to use non-military or paramilitary ships (like those of the Marine Surveillance service) to harass foreign ships it wants out of the EEZ or disputed warfare. This approach is less likely to spark an armed conflict, and makes it easier for the Chinese claim they were the victims. This strategy is wearing thin, but Chinese aggression appears to be a permanent part of the seascape.


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