SINGAPORE — America’s protest last week to China over the alleged harassment of two of its navy ships by Chinese vessels, and China’s reaffirmation of ownership of the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, highlight two festering maritime disputes. Either position could lead to conflict in the region unless it is carefully managed.
The tiff between Washington and Beijing resurrects a long-standing disagreement over the rights of coastal states in Exclusive Economic Zones that extend for 200 nautical miles from their shores, and the procedures to be followed by foreign military ships and planes when using EEZ waters and airspace.
The United States says its unarmed ocean surveillance ship Impeccable was about 120 km south of China’s Hainan Island last Sunday towing sonars, when it was forced to leave the area after Chinese vessels engaged in “dangerous maneuvers” nearby. The Pentagon says another U.S. surveillance ship had been harassed days earlier in the Yellow Sea, 200 km from China’s coast.
U.S. ocean surveillance vessels probe the ocean to gather acoustical data and detect underwater threats. Their work helps the U.S. Navy strengthen its antisubmarine defenses.
Although the U.S. has not signed the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that regulates ocean use, it insists that its military ships and planes have freedom of navigation and overflight in “international” waters, including EEZs of foreign states.
China, which has signed the law of the sea treaty, maintains that military operations, hydrographic surveying and intelligence collection by foreign ships or planes can be carried out in an EEZ only with permission from the coastal state. Some Asian countries take a similar view, even though they may be reluctant to challenge the U.S. or other naval powers in the way China does.
China’s military power is growing steadily, a fact underscored by the announcement earlier this month that the Chinese defense budget will increase by nearly 15 percent in 2009 despite the economic slump. China’s ambitions to become a naval power with global reach was also underscored by the recent deployment of Chinese warships on anti-piracy operations off Somalia, and official statements that the Chinese Navy plans to build and operate aircraft carriers.
China’s muscle-flexing in its EEZ is not new. In March 2001, a Chinese frigate confronted the U.S. Navy survey ship Bowditch in China’s EEZ. The following month, a Chinese jet fighter crashed off Hainan, killing the pilot, after it collided in midair with a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronics surveillance plane.
The American aircraft was so badly damaged it made an emergency landing on Hainan, where the crew of 24 was detained by the Chinese military for 11 days, straining U.S.-China relations and causing a temporary break in defense contacts between the two countries.
There have also been reported intrusions by North Korean and Chinese trawlers equipped for spying into Japan’s declared EEZ in recent years, and Hanoi has protested Chinese military exercises in Vietnam’s claimed EEZ. China’s claims to ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea bring it into conflict with other claimants, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Last Monday, China posted an official comment on its Foreign Ministry Web site after the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi the week before had inspected Layang Layang, an atoll off Sabah that China says is part of its Spratly Island territory.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing asserted that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the widely scattered Spratly archipelago and “their adjacent waters,” but added that it was ready to resolve disputes through consultation.
Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea are far-reaching and may cover as much as 80 percent of the whole area. It is the only claimant state that will have the military strength to enforce its title, although the cost to its relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and major users of the South China Sea, such as the U.S., Japan and South Korea, could be high.
There is already a voluntary code of conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China. It is designed to prevent conflict. There is also a set of nonbinding guidelines for navigation and overflight in East Asia’s EEZs. The guidelines were published following an international meeting of maritime experts in Tokyo in 2005.
However, neither arrangement is consistently observed because countries involved put their security and economic interests ahead of regional peace and stability. They need to reverse the order and negotiate durable accords to ensure that small-scale clashes do not spiral into something far more serious.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
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