Draw a line in the South China Sea

Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), believes China is “changing the operational landscape” in the South China Sea with its deployment of missiles and radar. Harris, a straight-talking military man, says this is part of a plan to achieve “hegemony in East Asia.” It is hard to disagree.

China is one of six claimants — the others are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — to territory in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which passes $5 trillion worth of commerce each year, that provides protein for an estimated 500 million people, and which is thought to have extensive mineral resources. China’s claims are the most expansive, extending over almost all of the water and land. At a recent naval conference, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, commander of the North Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), spoke for many Chinese when he said that “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.”

The basis of the Chinese claim is history. Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan province in southern China, has argued that “China was the first country to discover and name these island groups. The history of continuous use and exercise of authority spans over 2,000 years.”

That may be impressive, but it is also irrelevant. The relevant documents, in particular the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and legal precedents do not credit such historical claims. Instead, they rely on hard evidence — of which there is little. The fragility of the Chinese claim is highlighted by Beijing’s refusal to take up the Philippines’ call to take their dispute to an international tribunal. The reluctance to submit the claim to a neutral arbitrator in accordance with the provisions of the major international agreement governing such disputes — despite China’s signature on that document — undermines Beijing’s claim that it seeks the peaceful resolution of these questions.

Instead, China is determined to create “facts on the ground,” by building a Great Wall of the Sea. For the past few years, Beijing has pushed an aggressive program of land reclamation, turning small islets, rocks and even lagoons into islands throughout the South China Sea. According to international law, however, such activities cannot transform the characteristics of such “features.” For example, if a rock protrudes from the water only at low tide, it does not qualify as a separate maritime zone. China’s actions therefore are not bolstering its legal claims.

That has not stopped China from using these newly claimed islands as bases at which they station troops, build runways, deploy aircraft and, most recently, install surface-to-air missiles and radar systems. These most recent developments have captured the attention of Harris and other naval planners in the United States and other countries, who worry that China is beginning to establish an umbrella to deny enemy forces access to the area in the event of a conflict as well as project power further into Southeast Asia. Experts predict China will soon declare the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), as it did in the East China Sea in November 2013, a move that China would use to bolster its claim of sovereignty over the territory.

China has countered that the new facilities are going to be used for research and for search and rescue missions. It has pointed out that the missiles dispatched to Woody Island in the Paracel chain are not new; they have been sent there twice previously.

Beijing also claims it is not militarizing the islands. It bases that argument on a linguistic twist that distinguishes between offensive and defensive capabilities. Since the equipment sent to the islands is intended for defensive purposes, it cannot be called militarization. That is a curious argument given the complaints that Beijing has leveled against Seoul for considering the deployment of missile defense systems. Equally laughable is the Chinese claim that it is doing just as the United States does to protect Hawaii. Hawaii is undisputed U.S. territory and there is no question about its status.

China blames the U.S. for causing tension and acting irresponsibly by sending vessels to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Beijing also charges the U.S. with interfering in disputes that do not concern it. In fact, the U.S., like Japan and many other countries, has direct interests in the continued freedom of passage in those waterways. No country has a greater stake in the free flow of commerce. Much of the cargo flowing through the South China Sea is either going to or from the U.S., or one of its allies. Its freedom of navigation exercises are a reminder of the many national interests invested in the South China Sea.

Indeed, more countries should be sending the same message to China, making clear to Beijing that its intrusions into international waters and its unilateral attempts to rewrite the status quo will not be tolerated. Defense Minister Gen Nakatani made this point last week noting, “Construction of a stronghold in the South China Sea, the use for military purposes, and unilateral actions that increase tensions by changing the status quo are a common concern throughout international society, and our country takes the position that it is important to coordinate to protect an open, free, peaceful sea.” The failure to do so will encourage China to continue its creeping annexation of the South China Sea.

  • RobRoyston

    the world has to teach china a lesson or two…

  • Long

    Thank you for a good analysis. You are absolutely correct that China has no hard evidence to back up its claims besides their “historical” facts. However, there exists maps published by China in previous centuries that depicted that the southern most point of China is Hainan islands.

    • The Truth

      The South China Sea dispute involves both island and maritime claims among several countries within the region, Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. So all their claims must be backed up by hard evidence, except China. LOL

      • JimmyJM

        As the article says: “That may be impressive, but it is also irrelevant. The relevant
        documents, in particular the United Nations Conference on the Law of the
        Sea (UNCLOS), and legal precedents do not credit such historical
        claims. Instead, they rely on hard evidence — of which there is little.”

        I’m curious, does Beijing still pay 5 Mao per post?

      • The Truth

        Do you understand why this is called South China Sea dispute and not South China Sea invasion??

      • JimmyJM

        Didn’t they even let you read the above article? It explains it all very nicely.

      • Long

        The Philipines back up their claims with hard evidence by bringing the dispute to the court whereas China was so afraid to participate. Why? Because China knows their “historical facts” are not valid.

      • The Truth

        Per Wiki, “China refuses to participate in the arbitration, stating that several treaties with the Philippines stipulate that bilateral negotiations be used to resolve border disputes. It also accuses the Philippines of violating the voluntary Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, made in 2002 between ASEAN and China, which also stipulated bilateral negotiations as the means of resolving border and other disputes. China issued a position paper in December 2014 arguing the dispute was not subject to arbitration because it was ultimately a matter of sovereignty, not exploitation rights.”

      • Long

        Wiki is not a reliable source, anyone can edit it. Now, on breaking the DOC, China was the party that tricked the US and the Phillipines on the Scarborough in 2012. China was also the one that violated the DOC by building the artificial islands while other claimants did not. How can bilateral negotiations can be done if China ignores the others’ right and stubbornly proceed with the island buildings?
        China is afraid of justice and therefore refuses to participate in the court. That’s the behavior of a bully.

      • The Truth

        Oh I see Wiki is not “reliable” just that the facts are not in line with your argument.

      • Long

        This is exactly why China is afraid of bringing the dispute to court. while the other claimants rely on UNCLOS which China ratified as their hard evidences, China relies on Wiki. it is a joke. I could create a Wiki page that claims mainland China as part of Singapore, what do you think? lOL. You disappointed me with your non sense argument. I thought Chinese is smart people, not a whole bunch of clowns like you

      • The Truth

        Wiki is a good quick reference for facts. If you disagree with the facts say so. Writing insults will not help your argument. On December 7, 2014 China’s Foreign Ministry released a copy of China’ s position paper regarding the Philippines’ appeal to international arbitration over South China Sea disputes. It provides a legal justification as to why China will not participate in or accept the results of the arbitration. Feel free to search that up and read it yourself.

      • The Truth

        When China joined UNCLOS, it specifically declared that:

        The People’s Republic of China reaffirms its sovereignty over all its archipelagos and islands as listed in article 2 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, which was promulgated on 25 February 1992.

        Article 2: The territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China is a belt of maritime area adjacent to the land territory and the internal waters of the People’s Republic of China. The land territory of the People’s Republic of China includes the mainland of the People’s Republic of China and its offshore islands, Taiwan and all islands appertaining thereto including the Diaoyu Islands; the Penghu Islands; the Dongsha Islands; the Xisha Islands; the Zhongsha Islands and the Nansha Islands; as well as all the other islands that belong to the People’s Republic of China.

        The Nansha Islands is the Chinese name for the Spratley Islands.

      • Long

        So, when two soccer teams are playing. On one play, team A thinks it deserves a penalty kick while team B does not think so. What should be done? A referee is needed.
        Another scenario: you and your next door neighbor has a dispute about the fence dividing the two house. What do you do? Of course you’ll say the fence should move a few meters over to your neighbor. Your neighbor thinks it should be moved the other direction a few meters. What should be done? A court is needed.
        In your argument, you give China the right to claim the islands while ignoring the other claimants’ rights. And this is wrong behavior in the civilized world. It’s not ancient time anymore

      • The Truth

        Where do you get that? I never suggested that we should ignore the claims of other countries in the South China Sea. In fact I pointed out other countries are also making claims.

        “The South China Sea dispute involves both island and maritime claims among several countries within the region, Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. So all their claims must be backed up by hard evidence, except China. LOL”

  • CaptainAsia

    china did the same sort of thing to Tibet and Uighur countries. Slowly, slowly creeping in with PLA commies and then one day fully armed. Usually they did these sort of things when the world had other vital things going on such as WW2. It is the same now, USA has a weak president and caught up in the middle east, so chineese are taking advantage. By the time the world looks closely it is too late. Next stop, Okinawa and Senkaku, but dont worry they will wait for Japan to undergo some sort of crisis before they start the Senkaku invasion. Just like chinese tried to do when the Tohoku earthquake/Tsunami struck, both the chinese and koreans got bolder. Sadly the politicians of Okinawa are on the payroll of commie china and many advisers from the CCP are constantly visiting the island with lots of cash and political messages.
    Watch out Japan, best thing for you to do is to get nuclear deterrent, then China will stop, but then you have article 9, which the chinese see as your Achilles heel.

    • The Truth

      Yes Japan did the same, started the war in the Pacific without declaration in 1941 taking advantage of the situation in Europe when most of Europe had fallen to Hilter and Stalin was struggling for survival. Not to mention everyone in Pearl Harbour was enjoying the Sunday off when the Japanese sent in their planes.

  • Ariko Honda

    Congratulations on an intelligent, incisive editorial. Clearly the time has come when everyone has to recognize that China is a bully nation that can only be reined in by force. However, this does not need to be military force. China depends on trade, and the threat of tariffs or quotas would make them take notice.

    • The Truth

      Yeah Trump should bring back all the capital and manufacturing jobs from China and stop all trading with the Chinese. Just see who is going to suffer most.

  • The Truth

    Only eight of the Spratly Islands are under Chinese control; Vietnamese troops control the greatest number of Spratly islands, 29. Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan. And except Brunei all are having aiport on their islands. Why is there such a blatant double standard?

    • JimmyJM

      With the exception of China, the countries you mention are not installing missiles or building runways long enough to land fighter aircraft (which they don’t have in any case). They are also not trying to create a hegemony in the region. China has annexed Tibet, Xinjiang, parts of India and Manchuria. Now it wants to annex the Western Pacific. The apparent goal is complete dominance of Asia, an empire with Emperor Xi at its head. And of course, there are all those supposed riches under the sea in the vicinity of the islands China has annexed or is trying to annex – like the Senkakus.

      • The Truth

        The runway build by Malaysia’s on Swallow Reef, the Philippines’ on Thitu Island, Taiwan’s on Itu Aba are all long enough to land fighter jets. Get the facts right Jimmy..

      • CLJF

        JimmyJM is right. You, on the other hand, prefer to only deal with the ‘truth’ according to the CCP/PLA. What explanations have they been giving you for the all the runways, radar systems and other military installations that have been going up on those artificial sandbars it has been constructing illegally? CaptainAsia’s observations are very pertinent; the difference between Japan and China is that Japan is a responsible international citizen, China, by its past AND present actions shows that it has never learnt how to be one.

      • The Truth

        Japan is a responsible international citizen?? Despite fierce criticism from other nations and violent clashes at sea Japan is still standing by its “tradition” to hunt whales and dolphins. Oh I see.

      • JimmyJM

        Got ‘em right. There’s a nice graph in the Economist (which people in China aren’t permitted to read so your lack of knowledge is understandable). It compares the various runway lengths and what kind of aircraft can land on them. My statement stands.

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • JimmyJM

        None of the activity you mention would have been necessary if China hadn’t decided to militarize the South China Sea. From the Economist (probably banned by the CCP): “Indeed, China’s building stands out for three reasons: its extent, its
        speed and its egregious flouting of the spirit of a declaration signed
        in 2002 with ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, in
        which all claimants promised “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct
        of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.”

      • The Truth

        Apparently China is a late comer in terms miliarization of the SCS. China is only doing this now in response to the claims and construction by other countries and the recent provocation by the US. Let me quote this from the AMTI:-

        “Vietnam began construction of its airstrip on Spratly Island in 1976, making this the first runway in the Spratly island group. In 1978, the Philippines incorporated Thitu Island after airstrip construction had already begun. In 1983, Malaysia built a resort and airstrip atop Swallow Reef. The Nationalist Chinese government occupied Itu Aba in 1946, but did not begin constructing its airstrip until 2006, and construction finished in 2008. China is the most recent Spratly claimant to build an airstrip, which it began on Fiery Cross Reef in late 2014 after it reclaimed the former low-lying feature.”

      • JimmyJM

        Per the Economist: “None of the claimants is blameless: island-building has long been a
        common tactic in efforts to stake out claims (see map). But the pace and
        scale of China’s construction activities have been remarkable. This
        month IHS Jane’s, a consultancy, published satellite photographs showing
        China’s rapid building this year (2015) of installations in the sea that could
        have military uses. These include an airstrip that could, when
        finished, reach a length of 3km (nearly 2 miles) on Fiery Cross Reef
        (the pictures above show the reef today compared with its appearance in
        August). The reef is now three times bigger than the largest natural
        island in the Spratly archipelago. A few weeks ago satellite images
        published by IHS Jane’s and the Centre for Strategic and International
        Studies (CSIS), an American think-tank, showed similar activity on
        Mischief Reef, also in the Spratlys.” None of the claimants have a military approaching the size of China’s. China is simply taking what it can on the off chance that a more aggressive president will be elected in America. None of the other claimants has stationed fighter jets or missiles on the islands they control and none has built high powered radars on the islands. And why is China afraid to face the challenge by the Philippines in the UN? CSIS by the way is the parent organization of AMTI which you like to quote out of context.

      • The Truth

        Well the US sent in the B 52 and their guided-missile destroyer. Do you expect China to give them a welcome party? Yes China is doing this at a much bigger scale, but China is also a huge country. Do you ever question why the US military expenditures are roughly the size of the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined?

      • JimmyJM

        The B52 was a response to China’s unilateral establishment of an AIZ where none had been before. The destroyer was acting in freedom of navigation since those seas had been open water until China decided to militarize them. China did the same thing by sending its warships into Alaskan waters.There was peace in the waters of South East Asia until China decided to make a grab for everything it could get. All of the nations of the region now fear that China is going to exert unilateral control over every spec of land (even submerged) and the waters near them. Those nations have started building up their militaries in response. They have no hope of matching China’s military so they turn to America for help. All of this has occurred because of China’s activities. China is willing to pay that price in order to gain control of the waters and minerals under them. To China, universal condemnation is a small price to pay for what might be under the water and for control over whose ships pass through them. It’s all about control as you know.

        Do you get 5 mao for every post? You’re getting rich off this article.

      • The Truth

        Sure once upon a time the world was peaceful and full of freedom until everything was destroyed by the dragon….and the superhero is here to defend the world… very nice analysis.

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

      • The Truth

        According to a report by The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, AMTI on “Airpower in the South China Sea”:-

        “Malaysia’s Swallow Reef runway is 1,368 meters long and has two aprons. A control tower and hangars also stand nearby. The Swallow Reef airstrip theoretically allows Malaysia to land Sukhoi Su-30 fighter craft, which have a combat radius of 806 miles. They can also land C-130 Hercules cargo planes, which have an operational range of 1,208 miles.

        Taiwan’s Airstrip on Itu Aba is a 1,195 meter airstrip and is currently being upgraded, with work expected to finish by the end of 2015. The runway has an apron on either side. A runway of this length can accommodate a Taiwanese F-16 fighter, which has a combat radius of approximately 995 miles, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which has a range of 1,208 miles, and possibly even a P-3 maritime patrol craft, which has an operational radius of 1,549 miles.”

  • CLJF

    China is a greedy, lying bully whose economic and demographic comeuppance can’t come too soon.

    • The Truth

      But the US is still business as usual with China. Who can we blame LOL.

      • CLJF

        We can still blame China for the greedy, lying, bullying behaviour. It’s no wonder China has no real friends and many who would relish it being brought down a peg or two (thousand), what with the way China treats its own citizens let alone its neighbors. Other countries have seen the Chinese ‘model’ and understandably don’t want a bar of it. It has no attractive features whatsoever. It says a lot about China’s inherent characteristics and methods that the only way it can get agreement from others is through force.

      • The Truth

        Bullying and lying? Really no country can beat the US for the title of worst liar and bully. Just look at how the US treated countries like Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Afganistan and how they lied about weapon of mass destruction in Iraq and started the war there killing tens of thousands of innocents.

      • CLJF

        China’s current bullying and lying is world class (and world wide, not just in Asia but also in Africa), it is obviously going for the ‘world’s number one’ title. China likes to boast about its long history; it certainly has a long history of bullying and hegemony, and a lot longer than the USA and just about any other nation, too.

      • The Truth

        China is exporting capital and know how to various African countries and actively helping them to build up their infrastructure. On the other hand the US is exporting war, chaos and misery to the Middle East in the name of fighting terrorism and democracy. See the mess in Iraq, Afganistan, Lybia and Syria today. It is sad to see the local population and Europeans are paying the price rather than the US.

  • CaptainAsia

    “The Truth” is like so untrue. Anyway here is your 50 cents….katching, now go and get yourself a pork bun and call it a day.

    • The Truth

      Well there is no need to get nasty Captain. It doesn’t help your credibility at all.