July 13, 2019
“THE South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometers.” Thousands of commercial vessels pass through the SCS carrying some $5 trillion worth of goods a year. The center of dispute is the Spratly Islands area. China’s unilaterally declared “nine-dash-line” ownership of the SCS overlaps with the competing claims of some Asian countries.
China’s leaders have never been clear about the exact location of the “nine-dash-line,” or about whether their claims refer only to certain land features, or also to more extensive continental shelves and seas. The usual formal answer is China inherited historical claims, including a map from the Nationalist period that sketches a “nine-dash-line” encompassing virtually the entire SCS.
Be it noted that the United States has maintained a neutral position on territorial issues in the South China Sea, including China’s reclamation activities in the Spratlys which are claimed by Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. Washington, however, has taken issue with Beijing’s claims on the waters surrounding China’s man-made land features in the SCS.
The US declared in 1995 and 2010 that the waters of the South China Sea should be governed by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. (The US has not ratified the Unclos.)
Against the aforementioned backdrop on tensions in the region over conflicting maritime territorial claims and China’s reclamation efforts in relation to these claims, is the regular conduct of freedom of navigation operations by the US in the SCS in accordance with international law.
Pursuance of freedom of navigation (FON) by navies have occurred fairly routinely around the world in accordance with internationally recognized systems of rules and norms. And, according to the US Navy, if there are challenges to those rules and norms, they will do the FON operations to make sure a response is made to a challenge.
Actually, the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the SCS are not new occurrences. Active FON operations, however, started only in 2015 after China conducted dredging and reclamation activities on a number of disputed features in areas where there are overlapping territorial claims. That was the time when China transformed the Subi Reef into an artificial island equipped with an airfield and military outposts for providing maritime security and assistance to search-and-rescue operations. Such an effort can be interpreted as a move to increase China’s maritime rights in the area. However, despite operating clear of the 12 nautical mile limit of Chinese-occupied features, Washington has always maintained it does not recognize any territorial sea limit around artificially created islands.
Transformation of the Subi Reef was followed by construction in the Cuarteron Reef in 2016 where structures now consist of, among others, sensor installations and an antenna farm.
Last year, “convulsions” in the SCS revolved around China’s installation of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three outposts in the disputed SCS which poses security concerns for the entire region. Whoever traverses those areas are well within China’s missile range. Additionally, the Chinese air force’s nuclear-capable bombers have landed for the first time on one of the islands in the contested waters.
Simultaneous political and military posturings by territorial claimants continue in the SCS. The situation has raised serious concerns from Japan, India, Australia, France, the UK and the US.
Recent years have seen an Asian thrust towards strengthening national navies drawn more by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China has been rapidly increasing in size that there is no other way except for the other navies operating in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen strategic partnerships in response. Combined multinational exercises are now in place to improve professionalism, develop exchange experiences and draw lessons from fellow navies.
In early May 2019, a Philippine Navy patrol ship with US, Japan and Indian warships conducted a quadrilateral cooperative naval drill in the SCS highlighting the fact of cooperation among the four countries’ navies. Likewise, countries have also committed to multilateral defense and diplomacy forums to enhance capabilities. One such is the Asean Plus Defense Ministers’ Meeting (the plus being Australia, China, India, Japan South Korea, New Zealand and the US. Reportedly, Chinese Coast Guard surveillance ships were noticed shadowing the participants’ vessels during the maritime capability exercise.
China’s defense ministry strongly criticized extra-regional navies operating in the SCS even as it announced a series of military drills in the disputed region. “The problem is that in recent years, some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation. The large-scale force projection and offensive operations in the region are the most destabilizing and uncertain factors in the South China Sea,” said Gen. Wei Fenghe at the annual security conference known as the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore in June.
At the same meeting, the French Navy and the UK Royal Navy expressed interest to be more involved operationally in the SCS. France even called upon fellow European countries to increase their naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region, apparently directing the comment at Beijings’s significantly stepped-up artificial island-building activities in the SCS.
In fact, a report was published in the China Military Online website on April 1 to the effect that China has introduced a “new system to defend islands and reefs in the South China Sea.” The report identifies two types of unmanned floating platforms that form part of an “information network node system” and are important for island reef construction and protection.
In the aftermath of the ramming of Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver on June 9 (ironically, the date had been designated Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day by Presidential Proclamation 148 in 2002), within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, someone thoughtfully remarked, “Is it right for a country to claim the South China Sea?” Indeed, can one state arrogate unto itself nearly the entire marginal sea which forms part of the huge and vast Pacific Ocean?
With China rising in terms of land and naval strategy and operations, pressing on towards Asian hegemony, could there be truth to the saying that “if you want peace, prepare for war”? Too alarmist?
Be that as it may, perhaps the safest is to say, it is time for all countries to remember Winston Churchill’s famous advice, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”
A delegate to the 3rd Philippine Constitutional Convention, the author served as a member of its eight-man committee on national territory. The committee is credited for the provision which says: “The Philippine territory comprises the Philippine archipelago… and all other territories belonging to the Philippines ‘by historic right or legal title,’ referring to Sabah and the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratlys. He served as Philippine ambassador to Papua New Guinea and Qatar.
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