by Director, Maritime Enforcement Division, ESSCOM, Rear Admiral (Maritime) . M. Karunanithi (Ret)
Though half of Sabah’s coastline faces the South China Sea, not many talked about China-US military threat simmering therein but instead about kidnapping for ransom, illegal immigrants and smuggling. There was a letter though last year from the former Foreign Minister of Malaysia directed to the Prime Minister urging him to act firmly against China’s behaviour in the Malaysian EEZ.
South China Sea has long been regarded as a major source of tension and instability in South East Asia. Geo-strategically, South China Sea functions as vital sea-routes linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. More than half of the world’s merchant fleet by tonnage and a third of maritime traffic worldwide passes through these waters. Should the sea lines of communication be disrupted due to armed conflict in the South China Sea as a result of territorial dispute then economic interests of countries in the Asia-Pacific region would be adversely affected.
In addition to its geo-strategic location, South China Sea hosts proven oil reserves and natural gas. Some estimates suggest that South China Sea contains more oil than any part of the world except Saudi Arabia. Hence it is natural for claimant states to strive to gain control over maritime zones and its potential resources in the South China Sea.
Lastly, territorial disputes surrounding these waters; home to over 200 small islands, rocks, banks, shoals and coral reefs in the Pratas, Paracel, Spratlys, Macclesfield Banks and Scarborough Shoal, add to its geo-strategic importance. Claimant states have used uncertainties in some of the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for extending their Economic Exclusive Zones and Continental Shelf.
The heart of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea revolves around historical claims on Pratas in the northeast, the Paracel in the northwest and the Spratlys in the south/southeast. It must be noted that China claims sovereignty to almost 80% of the South China Sea including all features of Paracel, Spratlys as well as Macclesfield Bank, and maritime zone bounded by the nine-dash lines as historical waters (see map).
Based on historical, the Han Dynasty established sovereignty over features in the South China Sea more than 2,000 years ago. The Pratas were explicitly written about during the Jin Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. The U-shaped nine-dash lines map published in 1947 (originally had eleven dashes but were removed after the China-Vietnam agreement over the Gulf of Tonkin) was a Kuomintang government map when it was ruling China. Pratas are now controlled by Taiwan but claimed by China. There is little argument that these are Chinese islands.
Vietnam’s claim on the Paracel (and Spratlys) are based on effective control of the feudal states, French colony, South Vietnam and unified Vietnam and based on historical records, maps and activities from pre-colonial times to modern day. In the mid-50s when France withdrew from the Indo-China and Paracel, South Vietnam (before unification) moved in and took control of the western part of Paracel while China occupied the eastern part. But China took control of the western part of the Paracel after the fall of Saigon in 1974. On the same note, China and Vietnam have resolved their territorial dispute in the Gulf of Tonkin through 3 stages between 1974 – 2000. Taiwan too has claims over the Paracel and Spratlys. However, I see that the dispute over Paracel and other areas in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China is indeed the centre of South China Sea conflict.
The Philippines claims sovereignty over Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) since the 1950’s based on proximity principle, discovery (by a private explorer Thomas Cloma) and national defence. KIG covers almost the entire Spratly archipelago except the Spratly Island itself. Malaysia claims EEZ, continental shelf and sovereignty over some of the features on the Spratlys, based on the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as published in Peta Baru 1979. Likewise, Brunei too claims EEZ and continental shelf over a few features in the Spratlys.
The grab for reefs and features in the South China Sea is almost over. China has seized twelve reefs/features, Vietnam twenty-one, Philippines nine, Taiwan one and Brunei one. Malaysia claims ten atolls/features in the Spratlys and occupies five of the features (Swallow Reef, Mariveles Reef, Ardaiser Reef, Investigator Shoal and Erica Reef). Additionally, Malaysia have planted markers on two unoccupied reefs i.e., Royal Charlotte Reef and Dallas Reef. The other three features are Vietnamese-occupied Amboyna Cay and Alison Reef and Philippine-occupied Commodore Reef. Additionally, Malaysia claims sovereignty over submerged/semi-submerged features over South Luconia Shoals (54 miles off Sarawak coast, Beting Patinggi Ali and Beting Raja Jarom). It must be noted that we are seeing very regular presence of China Coast Guard vessels in around South Luconia since 2013. Hence China may have set its eyes on South Luconia Shoal as it is believed to sit on oil and gas deposits!
The disputes among claimant states in the South China Sea are either bilateral, tri-lateral and or multi-lateral and cannot be solved without settling the question of sovereignty. The disputes are closely linked with the development of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provisions. China’s nine-dash line would have little or no bearing once the Law of the Sea come into play in a legal claim/dispute. Based on the Law of the Sea, Spratlys comes within Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei EEZs. This is where the largest oil and gas deposits believed to be present. Obviously, China is cut out of the Spratlys. Based on the same law, China will only get to as far as Paracel, Pratas, and Macclesfield Bank only!
Consequently, since a decade ago, China has built artificial islands and infrastructures such as runways, piers, hangars, radar facilities and monitoring stations on tiny reefs, shoals, and rock outcrops to deepen its claim. Moreover, it has expanded its military presence in the area by deploying air, naval and missile forces. Hence South China Sea continues to draw attentions.
Many see China’s claim to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as completely unlawful and are campaigns of bullying claimant states to control them. The many actions by the China Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels on Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen; where a few of their boats were rammed and sunk are seen as bullying too. Chinese fishing boats operating in disputed areas are escorted by China Bureau of Fisheries Administration in order to assert Chinese jurisdiction in the South China Sea, making them out of reach of other claimants’ law enforcement. Most recently China created two municipal districts that governs Spratlys and Paracel to assert administrative control. Additionally, the Chinese authorities just passed the China Coast Guard Law that among others allow the China Coast Guard to use weapons as necessary to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels. These have caused protests not only from claimant states but non-regional states too.
In April 2020, while West Capella (Petronas contracted drill ship) was conducting oil exploration in the Malaysian EEZ in the Spratlys, China deployed Haiyang Dizhi 8 (Chinese survey vessel and along with a flotilla of coastguard and maritime militia vessels) to protest West Capella’s drilling activities. Malaysia sent naval and coastguard vessels to shadow Haiyang Dizhi 8. The US, in response to the so-called muted response by the Malaysian authorities, sent naval vessels, bombers and submarines to maintain presence/show-off force near West Capella for almost a month. Haiyang Dizhi 8 left the area 3 days after West Capella completed its drilling operations. After Haiyang Dizhi 8 left Malaysian EEZ in May 2020, we see increased naval vessels conducting FONOPs led by the US, including naval vessels and submarine from EU countries, UK, Australia and Japan. Additionally, the many overflights by surveillance aircrafts and strategic bombers in the disputed areas.
It must also be noted that between 2016-2019, China Coast Guard vessels were detected to have encroached Malaysian EEZ 89 times. In spite of a few close quarter manoeuvres particularly with Petronas contracted survey/drill ships, these Chinese vessels never did any action that hampered oil/gas production thus far. And perhaps we may view Chinese actions in harassing survey/drill ships as reactive and its intolerance to any unilateral new oil exploration activities by claimant states.
For Malaysia, our responses to Chinese harassment in the Malaysian ZEE has been termed as muted-response and did not go down well with major powers. Our consistent stand is to remain neutral and resolve any dispute amicably through peaceful means, diplomacy and mutual trust by all concerned parties. Clearly it is a signal that Malaysia intended to defuse and de-escalate any dispute. It is also consistent with Malaysian policy to uphold international law that include freedom of navigation and overflight.
With so many claims and often overlapping with one another, the idea for a solution to the South China Sea disputes is very complex. We have not exhausted all possibilities to agree to some kind of deals with claimant states and significantly with China to ease these disputes. There could be some leeway on the nine-dashed lines/EEZ claims. The real problem is all sides except for Malaysia and Brunei play politics with their claims. Its best for Malaysia to pursue this dispute with China bilaterally through the quiet behind the scene diplomacy. Band-wagoning with the US to reach a solution to the dispute in the South China Sea should be made as a last option. As I have said earlier, it’s the politics by some claimant states that makes the disputes complex.
All said and done, China’s current behaviours in the South China Sea should be seen in a wider context. The fact remains that China and US are two great powers with competing interests in the South China Sea. With the current military brinkmanship, trade war and sanctions on officials, demand for China to review its territorial claims along its border with India, Senkaku and South China Sea and the demand for China to reviews its domestic law (Hong Kong, China Coast Guard Law etc) are all seen as a challenge to China’s sovereignty. These actions indeed remind the Chinese of the Century of Humiliation (1839-1949); the period of intervention by great powers (US, Russia, Britain, France, Sweden & Norway, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Netherland and Japan). Following military threat, China lost control of a large portion of its territories to foreign powers during this period. On a closer look some of the very same foreign powers (except Russia) plus India today are allied to intervene the rising China in the South China Sea. Who is the bigger bully?
China firmly believes in, as with the current international system, the primacy of national sovereignty, economic and political interdependence, balance of power over hegemony and the link between peace and development. China understands the power of the US. But at the same time, it will not tolerate small power states allied to the US go against it.
The growing rivalry and action-reaction between these powers is very concerning. The risk of China-US getting into armed conflict in the South China Sea is growing as their military exercises intensifies and various nations; both claimant and non-regional states, adopts a more assertive presence in this so called hot-spot. All it takes is an accident.
Like it or otherwise, China’s military rise is legitimate and the great powers should allow China take its rightful position in the western Pacific. At the same time the US continue to safeguard and ensure adherence to international law and norms while maintaining a favourable balance of power in the region. Its best for the claimant states to pursue their disputes with China bilaterally through diplomacy and find a meeting point for a win-win solution. We will then have a peaceful South China Sea.