Fifth of a series
Tensions as result of wrestling among multiple players
IN April 2012, the Philippine Navy made a provocative arrest of Chinese fishermen working in the Huangyan Island waters in what was later known as the “Huangyan Island Incident.” Arguably, this became the “last straw on the camel’s back” in the fragile stability in the South China Sea, and it tested the bottom line of China’s policy and patience.
On April 10, 2012, Philippine warships launched a surprise raid on 12 Chinese fishing vessels working in the lagoon, disturbing and harassing their operations, and even forcibly boarding one vessel and arresting the fishermen. Almost instantly, images of the arrested Chinese fishermen being stripped to the waist and exposed to the scorching sun on the deck made headlines in print and on digital media in China, triggering off an outcry among the Chinese general public. China was thus forced to take countermeasures, making urgent diplomatic representations to the Philippines, and sending marine surveillance ships and fishing administrative ships to the waters around Huangyan Island. Both sides engaged in a tense standoff till June 3, when all the Philippine ships had left the lagoon at the island. To prevent further moves by the Philippines, China sent marine surveillance ship for long-term deployment in the waters surrounding Huangyan Island, putting the island under its control.
As if the Huangyan Island Incident was not bad enough for tensions, Vietnam adopted its domestic Maritime Law on June 21, in an attempt to legalize its territorial claims in the South China Sea. On the day of its adoption, China’s then-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Zhijun summoned the Vietnamese Ambassador in China Nguyen Van Tho to protest against this move. On the same day, China announced its long-planned establishment of Sansha, a prefecture-level city, on Yongxing Island (Woody Island) in the Xisha Islands. Its jurisdiction covers the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands and surrounding waters. Relevant administrative, jurisdictional and military arrangements were made in the following months.
On Jan. 22, 2013, the Philippines initiated an arbitral proceedings against China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Shortly after this announcement, China’s Foreign Ministry made multiple official responses: “The Philippines and the Arbitral Tribunal have abused relevant procedures and forced ahead with the arbitration, disregarding the fact that the subject matter of the arbitration involves territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation and related matters, deliberately evading the declaration on optional exceptions made by China in 2006 under Article 298 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” stating “China does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines” and, therefore, “will not participate in the proceedings.”
Obviously, China disagrees with the Philippines, which applied for arbitration on account that its consultations and negotiations with China reached an impasse. The fact is that ever since the Huangyan Incident, the Philippines refused to have any serious dialogue with China, let alone negotiations, nor did they consult the other DOC—Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea—parties. As far as arbitration is concerned, China already made a declaration on optional exceptions in 2006 under Article 298 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since the Arbitration Court jurisdiction concerns sovereignty, historic rights and entitlement, China is exempt from the arbitration. There is no provision in the convention to enforce an adverse award on China.
The subsequent Ren’ai Shoal Incident and Drilling Platform 981 Standoff further aggravated the situation. As its landing craft aground at Ren’ai Shoal was disintegrating, the Philippines kept looking for opportunities to start construction projects to get the shoal under its control. China has kept a watchful eye on the activities. In March 2014, China discovered that some Philippine warships were transporting supplies to Ren’ai Shoal and immediately intercepted them, which led to a standoff between both sides. The Philippines incited a storm of media coverage of the incident, trying to elicit global attention and US intervention.
In May 2014, a drilling operation by the HYSY 981 rig was completed inside the contiguous zone of China’s Xisha Islands. The drilling was performed 17 nautical miles from the south of Zhongjian Island (Triton Island) from May 2 to Aug. 15, during which it was harassed by hundreds of vessels sent by the Vietnamese government, resulting in intensified situation with multiple chases and even collisions between the China Coast Guard flotilla and the Vietnamese law enforcement vessels.
In 2013, in view of the changing situation in the South China Sea, and to meet the civil and defense needs on the islands and to defend its sovereignty, China launched reclamation projects on its controlled Nansha islands. As all of these islands are far away from the international navigation routes, there was no question of these projects having any impact on the freedom of navigation. But the US and the Philippines kept accusing China and hyping up the issue. In response to the concerns, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying made a detailed explanation at a press conference held on April 9, 2015: The Chinese government has been carrying out maintenance and construction work on some of the garrisoned Nansha islands and reefs with the main purposes of optimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China’s international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas. The relevant construction, which is well within China’s sovereign responsibility, does not impact or target any country. It is recently reported that a series of projects are under way to construct facilities that can provide public service, like lighthouses, automatic weather stations, marine observation centers and marine research institutes. Five lighthouses for navigation safety have been built, and four of them have been put into use.
China’s actions have not been fully understood by its neighbors that expressed concerns. The US also stepped up its intervention, buzzing over China’s island reclamation projects using rhetoric like “reaching too far and too fast” and “islands militarization” to pile pressure on China, and even sending ships to sail near the Nansha and Xisha Islands. All these were perceived in China as serious security challenges.
From the perspective of many Chinese people, the US is the invisible hand behind the rising tension in the South China Sea. First, the US is increasingly targeting at China as it steps up its Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy. In 2013, the US announced to reinforce its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by deploying 60 percent of its fleet and 60 percent of its overseas air force to the region by 2020. Also, the US military has purported to be threatened by “China’s anti-access and area denial efforts,” and actively promoted some operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle, with China as a main target. These moves have undoubtedly further complicated and intensified the situation in the South China Sea and in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. Many Chinese scholars start to suspect that the US may be creating illusionary threats and crises in the region that can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Since 2014, the US has made clearer responses to China in the South China Sea, in postures of direct intervention in the disputes and often in favor of other claimants, especially its own allies.
On Feb. 5, 2014, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said at a congressional hearing that China’s “lack of clarity with regard to its South China Sea claims has created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region.” He also urged China to clarify its nine-dash line claim. This was the first explicit and official comment made by the US to challenge China on the South China Sea issue. And, obviously, the US was well aware that, as the Nansha Islands dispute was still unsettled, any attempt to clarify the dash line or maritime claims would only lead to an escalation of tensions. In the same month, US Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan Greenert announced the US support for the Philippines in the event of a China-Philippines conflict. This is the toughest stance expressed by the US in the China-Philippines dispute. At the Post Ministerial Conference of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, in Naypyidaw in Aug. 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry directly called for a moratorium on land reclamation, building on disputed islands, and actions that might further escalate disputes.
[Ms. Fu Ying is chairperson of Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress; chairperson of Academic Committee of China’s Institute of International Strategy, CASS; and specially invited vice chairperson of China Center for International Economic Exchanges. Mr. Wu Shicun, PhD, is senior research fellow and president of the National Institute of the South China Sea Studies. The article was published in the May 9 issue of The National Interest.]