SINGAPORE – China lost no time warning Yoshihiko Noda what it expected of him, after he was chosen by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan as its leader this week and subsequently was elected prime minister.
The official Xinhua news agency said on Aug. 29 that Japan should respect China’s “core interests” by dropping its claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and recognizing Beijing’s “complete sovereignty over the archipelago.”
China asserted similar “core interest” sovereignty claims in the South China Sea last year, alarming its Southeast Asian neighbors as well as the United States, Japan and other major trading nations.
The implications are clear: the omens for preventing conflict in maritime East Asia and keeping an increasingly powerful China at bay are not good, unless Japan and member states of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, are prepared to acquiesce in an extended Chinese presence in the East China Sea and in a vast swath of the South China Sea in the maritime center of Southeast Asia.
While there is uncertainty what the latter might mean in practice, enough is now known about China’s South China Sea claim to set alarm bells ringing not just among claimant states in ASEAN but also among nonclaimant states, including Indonesia, Singapore, the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
They rely on unimpeded shipping through the South China Sea for trade,energy supplies and military movement, and do not want to see China in a stronger position to exert control over a key geostrategic crossroads between the Pacific and Indian oceans.
In June, Singapore’s foreign ministry called on China to clarify its claims with more precision “as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community.”
Official Chinese maps show a U-shaped outline marked by 9-dashes that appear to indicate China’s maritime boundary in the South China Sea. It covers about 80 percent of the sea and stretches as far south as coastal waters off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands and East Malaysia.
If accepted or enforced, the claim would make China an immediate neighbor of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. Vietnam already has both land and sea borders with China, while Laos and Myanmar have land borders with China.
So it would mean that seven of the 10 ASEAN states shared a boundary with China. The exceptions would be Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore.
Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario last month said that the 9-dash claim was “illegal” under international maritime law and”the crux of the problem” in the South China Sea.
Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have also questioned the validity of the 9-dash claim following China’s move in May 2009 to table its controversial map with the United Nations.
At the same time, Beijing advised U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in a letter that: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.”
Last April, while accusing the Philippines of invading and occupying some of the widely scattered Spratly Islands that allegedly belonged to China, Beijing went significantly further in asserting its 9-dash claim. It told Ban in another letter that the Spratly Island archipelago claimed by China was “fully entitled” to a territorial sea extending 22 km from baselines close to shore, and also to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) out to 370 km from the baselines and a continental shelf extending at least that far and possibly further.
A territorial sea would give China extensive national security rights. An EEZ and continental shelf would give it authority to control and exploit natural resources, including fisheries and oil, natural gas and minerals on or beneath the seabed.
In writing to Ban, China invoked not just the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but also two of its own laws: the 1992 Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, and the 1998 Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf.
When China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, it did so with reservations that made ratification largely meaningless in the context of Beijing’s extensive offshore claims. In one reservation, China reaffirmed “sovereignty over all its archipelagos and islands” as listed in its 1992 law. They include the main disputed island groups in the South China Sea, which the 1992 law says are part of China’s land territory. Shortly before Beijing ratified UNCLOS, it announced a series of coordinates for Territorial Sea baselines in the largely uninhabited Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which Chinese forces seized from Vietnam in 1974.
The baselines paid no heed to the UNCLOS provision that only islands capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life of their own could generate an EEZ or Continental Shelf. Instead the baselines were drawn around the outer edges of the Paracels.
If the same principle was adopted by China in the much larger Spratly archipelago and in the other island groups it claims in the South China Sea,there would be little left in the region without some form of Chinese jurisdiction.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.