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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

China ignores UN Law of the Sea

October 5, 2011
By A. Gaffar Peang-Meth

My first op-ed for the Pacific Daily News was an invited piece in 1999 on Kosovo. What followed were irregular submissions that eventually led to a weekly column, recently reduced to an every-other-week submission to make room for life's other commitments.

As an educator at the University of Guam, I seized the opportunity provided by the PDN -- to which I remain grateful -- to write, inform and share integral to educating informed citizens. I follow the traditional role of a political scientist to describe what is, explain the why's, analyze cause and effect, and forecast what may lie ahead.

Through 1999 and 2000 I wrote a series of columns about regional conflicts involving China, particularly with coastal states of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, each claiming authority over parts of the South China Sea.

A decade later, in the Sept./Oct. Foreign Policy Magazine's special report, "The South China Sea Is the Future of Conflict," Robert D. Kaplan, a member of the Defense Policy Board of the U.S. Defense Department, warned of China's "undeniable naval expansion, ... forcing every country around it to react." He posited the "21st century's defining battleground is going to be on water."


In the 1992 "Law on the Territorial Waters and Their Contiguous Areas," China's congress identified 80 percent of the 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea as Chinese. "China has an indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters," China's deputy chief of the armed forces said in May 1996.

In 1995, in an assertive claim on new territory, China flew her flag over unimposing structures on stilts -- fishermen's shelters -- built by the Chinese on Mischief Reef, an area claimed by the Philippines, located only 135 miles off the coast of Palawan and 800 miles from China's Hainan Island. In 1998, the Philippine Air Force photographed "huge, concrete, fortified buildings," three landing support vessels with 57 mm guns, and a helipad on Mischief Reef.

Last year, Col. Geng Yansheng, spokesman for China's defense minister, affirmed "indisputable Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea." In May 2011, China's senior foreign policy official, Dai Bingguo, reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the South China Sea is China's "core interest."

China and UNCLOS

The Chinese contend their right to control the sea dates back several thousand years -- to the Xia dynasty in 2100 to 1600 B.C. The historical maritime map to which Beijing refers is known as the "cow's tongue" or the "nine-dotted line," which extends China's territorial claim from Hainan Island southward 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia. The "cow's tongue" map is a revision of the 1947 map of Chinese territory (the "11 dashes map") asserted by the government of Chiang Kai-shek, whom the communists toppled in 1949.

In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, was signed by 170 states. Article 56 stipulates the coastal states enjoy sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone, extending seaward up to 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline for purposes of "exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources ... and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone."

In June 1996, China ratified UNCLOS: "In accordance with the provisions (of UNCLOS), the People's Republic of China shall enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf." Under UNCLOS, a coastal state has sovereignty over a territorial-sea limit of 12 nautical miles from the baseline, but foreign military and civilian ships have right to innocent passage. It has exclusive right on mineral and non-living material in the subsoil of its continental shelf, and has exclusive control of living resources attached to the continental shelf, or 200 nautical miles -- but not to exceed 350 -- from the baseline.

While Southeast Asian costal states embrace a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-mile-EEZ in line with UNCLOS, China claims almost the entire South China Sea and what lies beneath it, raising great concerns over free passage through the Malacca Strait to China, Japan and elsewhere. Some 60,000 ships go through yearly.

An article in The Washington Post in September, "Disputed Territory, China's thirst for South China Sea oil puts it at odds with other nations' claims," notes the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has a $1 billion oil rig in the Spratly Islands. The drilling platform will be within 100 miles of Palawan. The Post noted that since early 2011, Chinese vessels, including craft from China's Liberation Army Navy, have erected posts and unloaded construction materials off the coast of Palawan.

Foreign Policy Journal lists the importance of the sea routes, the presence of hydrocarbons and the abundant marine resources in the South China Sea as the "three main causes" of sovereignty disputes.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies says a slowdown in the militarization of the South China Sea is unlikely. It forecasts "escalating naval competition and confrontation involving paramilitary forces."

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.

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