Befitting its status as a rising global power, China says it is the third-largest country in the world, after Russia and Canada, with a land area of about 9.6 million square km. However, although China is a continental giant, it is a maritime minnow compared to other big countries.
Because its coastline is relatively short and the uncontested islands it holds are not far from the coast, China has not generated a huge belt of exclusive economic zones as more fortunate nations have, among them the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan.
They have the sole right under international law to exploit valuable fisheries and seabed resources, including oil, gas and minerals, within their EEZs out as far as 370 km from their mainland and natural islands. They can extend resource control to the natural prolongation of their land territory at the outer edge of the continental shelf, up to 650 km from the coast.
China wants control of sea space and resources to fuel its fast-growing economy and feel secure behind an extended sea buffer. Yet it has an internationally recognized sea area covered by its EEZ of just 880,000 square km. By comparison, the U.S. EEZ area is over 12 million square km, Russia’s is more than 7.5 million square km, Canada’s 5.5 million square km and Japan’s is 4.4 million square km.
China blames its pygmy status as an offshore power on the U.S., Japan, Britain and European nations that colonized and carved up Asia when China was weak and had to relinquish islands in the South and East China seas that it claims had been Chinese for centuries, based on prior discovery and use.
The Chinese mainland is flanked from north to south by the Bohai, Yellow, East China and South China seas. The Bohai Sea is skirted by Chinese land territory and is described by China as its continental sea. The Yellow Sea is shared with North and South Korea. As seas go, both the Bohai and Yellow Sea are relatively small.
So, too, is the East China Sea between the islands of southern Japan and China. Japan and China have a long-standing disagreement over where their respective EEZ borders should be in the East China Sea, and which of them is the rightful owner of the Japanese- administered Senkaku Islands. Their overlapping claims in the area amount to 130,000 square km.
However, by far the biggest Chinese offshore claim is in the South China Sea. Beijing says that the four seas flanking its coast have a total area of 4.73 million square km. As much as 3.5 million square km is in the South China Sea, the maritime heartland of Southeast Asia but also China’s sensitive underbelly.
China claims sovereignty over many islands, islets, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands, contested by Vietnam, and the Spratly archipelago, claimed in full by Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines and Malaysia. The Spratlys are about 1,300 km from the Chinese mainland.
Beijing reaffirmed its sweeping assertion of control in a letter in May 2009 to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, attaching a map showing the approximate extent of the claim. It covers as much as 80 percent of the South China Sea, stretching as far south as a reef off the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
China declared that it had “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and adjacent waters covered by the map, and that it had “sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.” This appears to be a claim to EEZ or continental shelf resource control, or both.
In a significant move, Indonesia recently wrote to Ban contesting China’s position and saying that it “clearly lacks international legal basis,” risks upsetting the U.N. law of the sea treaty, and “encroaches (on) the legitimate interest of the global community.”
Indonesia’s letter is dated July 8. It went to the U.N. shortly before nearly half the 27 delegations attending the July 23 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum on security in Hanoi raised concerns about China’s increasingly assertive approach to the South China Sea and the potential impact on stability in one of the world’s busiest maritime crossroads for trade and transport, including naval and air movements.
Indonesia’s intervention is particularly important because, although it is the heavyweight nation of ASEAN, it had not previously weighed into the tussle with China, a key partner in trade, investment and security not just for Indonesia but also for other ASEAN members. Indonesia’s intervention is also important because it is not a claimant in the South China Sea, has worked for years to reconcile the conflicting positions there, and can thus put its views to the U.N. as a neutral and well-informed intermediary.
The Indonesian letter points out that China cannot legitimately claim an extended EEZ or continental shelf based on sovereignty over the widely scattered Spratly Islands. The word “islands” in the Spratly context is misleading. Nearly all these land features are little more than specks of very poor maritime real estate.
Although the Spratlys consist of over 100 reefs, atolls and islets spread over nearly 410,000 square km of the central South China Sea, their total land area amounts to less than five square km and many sink below sea level or are barely visible at high tide.
Under the U.N. law of the sea, which China has ratified and is bound to observe, rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own cannot be used to generate wider resource control claims. So, in the view of Indonesia, “it is only correct to state that those remote or very small features in the South China Sea do not deserve” an EEZ or continental shelf of their own.
A question that worries ASEAN countries, as well as their friends and allies like the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Australia, is how far will Beijing go to recover its so-called lost territories in the South China Sea? What exactly is it seeking? As its military power continues to grow, will it use force or the threat of force?
The record on force in China’s quest for what it regards as national reunification is mixed. China negotiated the return of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 and Macau from Portugal in 1999. It has negotiated with Taiwan to reduce tension, although without dropping the threat to bring the “rebel province” back to the “motherland” by coercion if necessary.
China has used force to integrate Tibet and Xinjiang and lists them as “core” national sovereignty interests, along with Taiwan. Earlier this year, senior U.S. officials were told that Beijing put the South China Sea in the same “core” interest category and would not accept any interference in internal affairs.
Chinese armed forces seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974. They clashed with Vietnam again in 1988, paving the way for the first Chinese garrisons in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, military power was used to back the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, claimed by both the Philippines and Vietnam.
While China has shown restraint in the South China Sea in recent years, its ambitions appear to be far-reaching and its patience limited.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.