Andre Avanessians, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
In the summer of 2014, news sources reported China’s plan to expand its international influence by creating an artificial island within the Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago of reefs, atolls, and islands located in the South China Sea. The Spratleys, although largely unexplored, are situated within a major shipping route and are suspected to contain a wealth of natural resources. Consequently, there is a significant territorial dispute over the islands, with claims by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Since 2014, China has managed to make major base developments, including establishing a fully functional airstrip in March of 2015. China’s announcement to construct an artificial island in this contentious area raises three key questions:
- Who has legitimate claim of the Spratly Islands?
- Does China’s new island abide by UN maritime laws given its territorial location? Who has legitimate claim of the Spratly Islands?
- What are China’s intentions behind the construction of this artificial territory, and does the island threaten U.S interests?
Examining the history of this region provides useful background to understand the policy options the US has concerning China’s recent actions in the South China Sea.
HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: EAST CHINA SEA AND THE SENKAKU ISLANDS
Who Owns What
A proper prelude into the Spratly Island dispute involves examining China’s ongoing intervention over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands with Japan. The origins of this dispute date back to World War II, when Japan used the Senkaku Islands as a strategic military base.
After the war ended, Japan renounced a number of the Senkaku Islands, including Taiwan, in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, leaving trusteeship over the remaining territory to the US. By 1969, a UN-led coalition, called the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), produced a report claiming that the surrounding seabed contained massive amounts of rich oil reserves that had yet to be extracted. China, along with Taiwan, quickly moved in to claim ownership of the islands.
Nevertheless, in 1971, the US returned ownership rights of the Senkakus to Japan after years of US occupation. Since the reclamation, the Chinese government has continuously attempted to force Japan into admitting the territorial dispute. China disputes Japan’s claim, stating that after Taiwan was returned to China in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the Senkaku Islands should have been returned to China too. Beijing says Taiwan’s Kuomintang revolutionary political party leader, Chiang Kai-shek, did not raise the issue when the islands were named in the later Okinawa reversion deal because he depended on the US for support. Consequently, Japan had refused to acknowledge the dispute with China for decades. It wasn’t until 2014 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conceded that the Senkaku Islands are a controversial issue. His admission was a major influence on Japan’s ability to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Beijing in November 2014. Since then, Japan has not relinquished its sovereignty over the islands, which has maintained strained relations between both nations.
As China fights to claim jurisdiction in the East China Sea, its willingness to artificially expand into the South China Sea has caused concern for the US and the surrounding nations in the region. Not only is there concern for the security of regional allies, but there is also the possible choke hold China may place on trade routes beneficial to the US economy.
CHINA TODAY: SPRATLY ISLANDS AND THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
The Issue of Legality
There are two major archipelagos located in the South China Sea: the Parcel Islands and the Spratly Islands, where China’s artificial island is currently being built. The geopolitical implications – and legality – of this artificial expansion have raised concerns with the US. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides instructions regarding the types of activities nations are allowed to perform within their territorial waters.
The primary actions a nation can carry out must be strictly related to marine research or environmental protection. An important stipulation of the EEZ is that a country’s territorial waters cannot exceed 200 nautical miles from the initial baseline of 12 nautical miles off the coastline. As seen in the graphic on the right, given the number of nations surrounding the Spratly Islands, and China’s regional superiority, the territorial dispute is forcing the US into conflict with China. As Matthew Rosenberg, a national security reporter for the New York Times explains:
“[B]isecting vital shipping lanes that connect Asia to the Middle East and Europe, and China’s efforts to create artificial islands and build military structures on reefs and other outcroppings have alarmed the Philippines, a close American ally, and other countries, like Vietnam and Malaysia.”
The legality of China’s activities is straining relations with neighboring countries as well as disobeying international law. US Secretary of Defense, Ashton B. Carter dismissed China’s efforts in the region: “There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”
In conjunction with the economic constraints that would be imposed upon the global economic market, China’s military presence in the region has created heightened tensions. In a recent report published by the Chinese government highlighting the nation’s military strategy over the next two years, there is significant dedication towards developing and exerting military dominance within the region.
US news sources have speculated upon China’s upcoming advancements within the region now that their artificial island has a functional runway. According to Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, once China has tested the landing strip with several test flights, they will likely land more military air power – SU-27s and SU-33’s – and station them there permanently. If China does begin to deploy forces onto the island permanently, then the likelihood of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) – an early warning radar system and communication center – may be imminent. China sparked condemnation from the United States and Japan in late 2013 when it declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea, covering uninhabited islands disputed with Tokyo.
ON THE HORIZON
The U.S. will soon have to decide a proper course of action towards confronting China’s encroachment in the South China Sea. Standing beside regional allies and strengthening its national defense should be the US’s number one priority. Late last year, Secretary Carter stressed this position by saying: “I’ll call for the region to strengthen its security institutions and relationships to ensure we can maintain lasting peace and stability in a region undergoing significant change.” As history has shown, Japan has struggled to solve its regional disputes with China. Now, numerous other Southeast Asian countries are facing similar challenges in the South China Sea. Any potential policy coming out of Washington or the UN needs to strongly address unity among Southeast Asian nations and the possibility of international punishment of China, especially if it refuses to cooperate with the global community.