The 2013 ASEAN summit is currently taking place and one of the top issues needing to be discussed is competing territorial claims in the South China Sea; however, China appears to be adamantly opposed to discussion of the matter. The political dispute over the South China Sea has drawn the attention of nations from around the world, but none more so than the immediate players: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia. Most of these countries have declared sovereignty over only pieces of the South China Sea, which directly contrasts with China declaring sovereignty over almost all of it. This clash has significant ramifications for the different nations’ use of the sea’s natural resources and the maritime rights for the entire international community.
China’s claim to the South China Sea was first publically declared in August 1951, at the Allied peace treaty negotiation with Japan when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai stated that China had sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Then in 1992, the Chinese government enacted its Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which combined with the 1998 Law of Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) and the Continental Shelf of the People’s Republic of China, provided the basis for the claim of maritime rights in the South China Sea. These claims are in direct conflict with other claims made in the region — i.e., Vietnam’s claim to all of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, Malaysia’s claim to twelve of the southernmost Spratly Islands, the Philippines’ claim to many of the easternmost Spratly Islands, Brunei’s claim over the Louisa Reef, and Taiwan claiming sovereignty of the same portion of the South China Sea as China.
The Chinese claim stems from what Beijing says are historical rights as evidenced by their “U-shaped line” or “nine-dash line” encompassing eighty percent of the South China Sea (this line first appeared on maps in 1947). The Chinese claim they abide by international law and allow passage of ships through the South China Sea. It is only when they suspect those ships are doing more than just passing through that they say they must take action for the security of the Chinese nation.
Over the last several years, China has been working hard to build up its claim on the South China Sea while delaying any formal negotiations with other nations. During this time, China has created the South Sea Region Fisheries Administration Bureau (to oversee the waters that China claims as its own) and the Marine Surveillance Force (to ensure no one is surveying or drilling for hydrocarbons on Chinese territory), and increased its South Sea Fleet with new ships and expansion of the Yulin naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island. China has intended this large presence to be intimidating to its neighbors and pressure them to back down on their claims.
China has also spoken out on any action the international community might take within this complex dispute. Most notable were comments made by China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Cui Tiankai: “Regarding the role of the United States in this, the United States is not a claimant state to the dispute, so it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states.” He went on to say, “I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States.”
Without a clear understanding of who has sovereignty over the disputed islands and reefs, no country can safely move forward with exploring the riches that lie there. Thus, it would seem the way forward would be to have China move from stalling the talks to initiating them. There will have to be some compromise and sharing of the resources, but if China, the seemingly dominant player, were to lead the way, it just might lessen the tension in the region.
Lisanne Boling, Research Assistant
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