Int’l opinion against China buildup in disputed sea
In the face of growing international condemnation for its building artificial islands in the South China Sea from which to project its military power in the region, China appears to have reduced itself into an island.
From world leaders and international organizations to opinion writers around the world, China has drawn criticism for its massive land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea.
Criticism of China’s behavior has intensified in recent months, as it refused to take part in arbitration proceedings that the Philippines has initiated in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Oral arguments on the Philippine case opened on Tuesday.
Officials of the United States, the Philippines’ defense treaty ally, are the most strident among those concerned about Chinese incursions in the disputed waters, saying it threatens freedom of navigation.
In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in May, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We are concerned about the pace and scope of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea.”
It was the same concern that US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear expressed before the US Senate committee on foreign relations, discussing the extent of China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
He said China had so far reclaimed 800 hectares “more land than all other claimants combined over the history of their claims.”
“We are concerned that the scope and nature of China’s actions have the potential to disrupt regional security. China’s actions and increased presence could prompt other regional governments to respond by strengthening their military capabilities at their outposts, which would certainly increase the risk of accidents or miscalculations that could escalate,” Shear said.
He warned that the restraint of other claimants “may not hold.”
An analysis on War on the Rocks, an American website featuring analysis and commentary of foreign policy and national security issues, said the US stand on the dispute would likely remain firm even through next year’s US presidential election, as candidates appear to consistently share this concern over Beijing’s actions.
“And the election may be having an effect in China; some analysts have argued that Beijing has undertaken its recent island-building spree precisely because it anticipates a tougher US stance after the 2016 elections,” wrote authors Zack Cooper and Mira Rapp-Hooper.
Besides China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.
Japan and the European Union (EU) have also cautioned about the impact of China’s activities in the South China Sea, issuing a joint statement during the 23rd Japan-EU Summit held in Tokyo on May 29.
“Mindful of the uncertainties in the regional security environment, we condemn all violations of international law and of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of states,” said the statement signed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Japan has a longstanding dispute with China over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Its May statement with the EC echoed concerns that Abe expressed with President Aquino in June, jointly condemning Chinese actions in the disputed waters.
In the chair’s statement issued in Malaysia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) cited how China’s activities in the South China Sea had spurred distrust among neighboring countries.
“We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea,” the chair said on April 27 at the close of the Asean Summit held in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi.
Analysts and opinion writers from prominent international publications have also condemned China’s actions in the South China Sea, citing how Beijing stood out in Asia as a country averse to international adjudication.
“Asians want their region to be peaceful, stable and prosperous. They want the rule of law to be strong and for all disputes between states to be settled peacefully, in accordance with the law and not on the basis that might is right,” said Tommy Koh, chair of the governing board of the National University of Singapore’s Center for International Law.
“With the exception of China, Asians do not have a negative attitude toward settling their disputes by arbitration or adjudication. China should therefore reconsider its position in order to conform to the best Asian and international practice,” he said in a piece published in The Straits Times on June 10.
Australia’s The Age newspaper, in an editorial on May 28, cited how China’s aggressive actions had been disproportionate to its rhetoric of peace.
“For all China’s sweet talk that it will “unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development” and oppose hegemony and “power politics in all forms,” its territorial ambition in the region, which purports to be an essentially defensive strategy, has taken a distinctly antagonistic turn,” the editorial said, citing China’s military buildup in the disputed Spratly Islands.
It warned that these would fan tensions in the Asia-Pacific region: “We deplore China’s implicit threats that military action will result from intrusions in an area where it is squatting.”
Carl Thayer, of the current affairs magazine The Diplomat, cited how China has been tailoring international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to its favor.
“China has succeeded in legal alchemy by transforming Unclos into international law with Chinese characteristics,” Thayer said. This development will bolster China’s assertion of “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.
“As I have argued elsewhere, China is slowly and deliberately excising the maritime heart out of Southeast Asia,” Thayer said, referring to Chinese construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, in a June 7 article in the magazine.
Along this line, Asia News International’s Ian Cameron noted how China seemed to apply international law with double standard, scoring other countries for supposed incursions while itself committing incursions.
“There are marked discrepancies in Chinese diplomacy too, with appeals to or against international rules depending on how advantageous it is to the government,” Cameron wrote.
“This is very obvious in the South China Sea, where China is engaged in a massive reclamation of eight islets at the cost of billions of dollars. Hundreds of [hectares] of reclamation will see military installations and runways built in quick order,” he said.
Cameron noted how the Chinese Navy deployed a spy ship in Hawaii waters in July 2014 to observe the Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) maritime exercises, the world’s largest such exercise where it participated along with the United States and other naval powers. Beijing said the deployment was “in line with international law and international practice.”
In the same breath, China protests operations of the US Navy near its coast, he said.
Cameron further noted how China believed “everyone else is wrong” in asserting its supposed “reasonable, justified and lawful” claims in the South China Sea.
Other analysts cited the environmental cost of China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
In particular, Harvard Law School’s National Security Journal called the issue of food security a “lost dimension” in the dispute.
Chinese encroachment into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of other claimant states, it said, undermined their sovereign right to protect food supply, as envisioned under Unclos.
“The exercise of Chinese jurisdiction in its neighbors’ EEZs is incompatible with the original design and structure of Unclos to protect food security for developing coastal states. This lost dimension of the maritime disputes has not been recognized, but it completely upends Chinese claims,” wrote James Kraska, an international law professor at the US Naval War College, on Feb. 26.
The disputed waters are also rich fishing grounds, and Beijing’s law-enforcement exercise in these areas has barred fishermen from other claimant states from undertaking fishing activities they are otherwise entitled to do within their countries’ EEZs under international law, he said.
Filipino fishermen in Zambales province, for instance, have experienced this in the hands of Chinese patrol boats in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales, a traditional Philippine fishing ground.
“The dispute should be settled in light of the food security impetus that drove the initial Unclos negotiations. China’s fishing activities in the South China Sea are permissible only to the extent that they have been authorized by the coastal state to land surplus catch,” Kraska said.
Researchers Youna Lyons and Wong Hiu Fung of the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies did not directly refer to China, but said “states carrying out construction activities” in the disputed waters “must avoid damaging the marine environment due to the far reaching risks to the states bordering the South China Sea.”
“To ignore such risks could create broader complications for regional cooperation and political stability amongst the states of Southeast Asia and the southwestern Pacific,” they said in an April 30 article.
The article noted how construction work must be done in consultation with other affected states, as this “carries a risk of severe or irreversible damage to the local marine environment and risk transboundary damage to coral reefs and fisheries of states bordering the South China Sea.”
The Citizen Daily cited how the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, if faced with a case invoking Unclos’ environmental protection, may order “provisional measures” requiring that “states take certain actions to preserve the parties’ rights or prevent harm to the marine environment.”
“If the Philippines or another littoral state brought a claim against China for violation of Unclos’ environmental protection provisions, the claimant state could rest its case on the damage being caused by land reclamation in a region that hosts the world’s greatest marine biodiversity,” it said.
Forcing limits on China
As the Philippines hopes for a favorable ruling from the UN arbitral tribunal, it has already achieved what Southeast Asia, as a bloc, “had failed to do” for years: “It forced China to further delineate its views on the South China Sea,” Felix Chang of the Foreign Policy Institute wrote in a commentary on Dec. 7 last year, commending the Philippines for boldly taking the step to bring China before an international tribunal.
“Second, it helped to change the tenor of the maritime dispute in the region. By forcing China to put its claims into sharper relief, the Philippines helped to show its fellow Southeast Asian claimants just how little room they have to negotiate with China,” Chang said.
He said the Philippines had also brought together Asean nations to cooperate on its approach toward China regarding the dispute.
“It is remarkable what the Philippines has achieved diplomatically, given the limited resources at its disposal and the disproportionate power of China. But diplomacy alone cannot change the facts on the ground. China knows that,” Chang said.
He cited how China had been prodding the Philippines to return to its version of “the right track.”
“That suggests that the best the Philippines (or any other South China Sea claimant) can hope for is cooperation with China ‘to manage’ resources and protect free navigation in the South China Sea. That is hardly an enticement for the Philippines to negotiate,” he said.
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