Tensions rising in South China Sea

A U.S. Navy warship sailed inside the 12-nautical-mile limit of an artificial island built by China in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea last week to demonstrate the right of freedom of navigation in international waters. The United States is expected to regularly conduct this type of naval operation in the area. China strongly reacted by saying that the U.S. warship “illegally” entered waters near “islands and reefs of China’s Nansha (Spratly) Islands” and called the maneuver “extremely irresponsible.” Two Chinese warships followed the U.S. destroyer and issued warnings. The U.S. action has heightened tensions between the two countries. Washington and Beijing should exercise self-restraint to prevent an unanticipated incident that could escalate into a military confrontation.

On Tuesday local time, the USS Lassen, an Aegis guided-missile destroyer based in Yokosuka, passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef — one of seven artificial islands built by China over the past year. It also sailed within 12 nautical miles of reefs claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam in an apparent attempt to signal that the U.S. is serious about upholding the right of freedom of navigation in international waters. The last time that the U.S. forces maneuvered within 12 nautical miles of reefs effectively controlled by China was in 2012. Subi Reef is among the reefs in the area that China has turned into islands using landfill. The U.S. is making it clear that it does not accept China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In his September summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama conveyed his “significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas” in the South China Sea. Xi replied that the disputed islands in the area have been Chinese territories “since ancient times” although he said that China had “no intention to militarize” the Spratlys. But China is building runways capable of handling military aircraft to reinforce its effective control over the islands and to boost its influence in the South China Sea. In the 1950s China adopted a U-shaped “nine-dash line” that encircles a large area of the South China Sea and declared that the sea inside the line was its territorial waters, although there is no legal basis for the claim under international law. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country cannot set 12-nautical-mile limits around artificial islands built on reefs that were originally submerged at high tide. All the reefs built up by China fall into this category. China, which says that it abides by the international convention, should realize that it cannot claim territorial waters around them.

In justifying the USS Lassen’s patrolling, the Pentagon insisted that the U.S. regularly carries out freedom of navigation operations around the world to counter “excessive maritime claims.” For its part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said China “stands firmly against the harm caused by any country to China’s sovereignty and security interests under the cloak of navigation and over-flight freedom.” It even hinted that it would continue construction of facilities on the man-made islands by saying, “Construction by the Chinese side on its own territory is in the realm of China’s sovereignty.”

According to the Pentagon, China reclaimed about 11.7 sq. km. of land in the Spratly Islands from December 2013 to last June — accounting for 95 percent of the reclaimed land in the area and 17 times the land reclaimed in the area in the past 40 years by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, which all have territorial disputes with China.

In May 2014, China started operating a large oil rig in waters near the Paracel Islands, also in the South China Sea, leading to a confrontation between dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese ships. The islands are controlled by China but claimed by Vietnam. Hanoi accused Chinese ships of repeatedly ramming Vietnamese ships. Two Chinese were killed in a subsequent anti-China demonstration in Vietnam.

In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea — which has no binding power — with a view to peacefully settling the territorial disputes. But China’s activities in the South China Sea constitute a unilateral change of the status quo. It should freeze construction of facilities on the artificial islands and start talks with the other countries concerned to settle territorial disputes, including pushing negotiations with ASEAN for an early conclusion of a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea.

China should realize that its actions in the South China Sea are alienating members of the international community that are interested in its “One Belt, One Road” development strategy to promote economic cooperation among Eurasian countries, and in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said China’s behavior in the South China Sea was a “matter of concern” for the international community and called for international solidarity to protect a free and peaceful sea. Toward this end, Japan should launch diplomatic efforts to help China move toward peace and cooperation, rather than hegemony, in the area.