Monday, August 2, 2010
New Tension in South China Sea
South China Sea is in the news again. The recent statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ARF Foreign Ministers' meeting has some for sharp criticim from the Chinese leadership that the US is trying to internatiolize the issue, while reiterating its "indisputable" claim to all the islands and waters of the South China Sea. Sensing some sense of coercion and aggressiveness in South China Sea, Hillary Clinton had stated at the summit that there has to be "freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international laws." She also ruled out out use or threat of force in the area.
Why did Hillary raise the issue of South China Sea all of a sudden?
The South China Sea is a 1.3 mn square mile waterway, in dispute between China and several other neighbours – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Apparently, the Chinese claims go back to the 1930s when “official” maps from China showed the whole area as theirs. Chinese historians too have shown some ancient pottery on atolls, again making a point that the South China Sea had belonged to them. But analysts suggest that China’s historical claims on these islands are “tenuous” and cannot put through the international practices such as the UNCLOS. However, these smaller Asian neighbours have been increasingly sensing aggressiveness on the part of China in the recent times. The number of actions reflecting aggressiveness has been on the rise. It has been reported that there have been seizing of fishing boats, arresting of sailors from other countries, exchanges of gunfire, pressurizing of western oil firms not to do business with Vietnam and so on. The Chinese have also been expanding the limits of their territorial waters, usually about 12 miles to now the entire exclusive economic zones, which is more like 200 miles. There have been recent instances between the Chinese and Indonesian naval vessels, besides the increasing number of face-offs between US and China and Japan and China in the recent years.
And what is the basis for the Chinese claims on these islands? Beijing says it has legal and historical backing for its claims. That is precisely the worry and concern among its neighbours. Are they making these territorial claims based on history and if so how far back will China go to justify all its historical territorial claims or make newer territorial assertions? The Chinese claims are by and large accompanied by or associated with a larger political aim.
In March this year, the Chinese for the first time stated that South China Sea formed part of their “core” national interests along with Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. Recently, the Global Times, generally a pro-Chinese leadership daily, noted that Beijing should not go on adding to their list of core interests that may dilute their stand in the long-run. Beijing appears to be getting aggressive in waters or areas that has economic and strategic interest to them in the long-term, given the emerging geopolitics.