Australia and the United States this month hardened their position on the South China Sea, where Washington has accused Beijing of attempting to build a “maritime empire” in the potentially energy-rich waters, despite regional concerns.
The rivals have accused each other of stoking tension in the strategic waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.
A statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 13 was the first time the United States had called China’s claims in the sea unlawful and accused Beijing of a “campaign of bullying”.
Australia then followed suit, writing a letter to the United Nations in which it said China’s territorial claims in the contested waters were “inconsistent” with international law.
What are tensions in the South China Sea about?
China illustrates its claims in the South China Sea with a vague, U-shaped “nine-dash line” that includes swathes of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, as well as the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.
It also overlaps the EEZs of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
A tribunal at The Hague, based on a suit brought by the Philippines, ruled in 2016 that China has no “historic title” over the waters, and that its line was superseded by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Australia echoed this ruling in its letter to the UN this month, asserting that it rejected Beijing’s claim to “historic rights”.
Why do the US, Australia and Japan care?
The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a thinktank, estimated in 2016 that a third of all global shipping passed through the South China Sea.
The sea is rich in oil, gas and for commercial fishing, which provides jobs and food for the region.
How have China’s South-East Asian neighbours responded to its territorial claims?
Vietnam, frequently at loggerheads with China over the issue, is this year chairing the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
At a June 26 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam and the Philippines — China’s most vocal challengers over the sea — warned of growing regional insecurity amid concern that Beijing was advancing territorial claims under the cover of the COVID-1 pandemic,
As China held military drills in the South China Sea this month, Vietnam said Beijing’s actions were “detrimental” to its relationship with the South-East Asian bloc.
The United States simultaneously deployed two aircraft carriers to the area for what it said were pre-planned exercises.
In a blustery response to the Chinese drills, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said China would be “met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate”, if the exercises encroached on Philippine territory.
Last year, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels became embroiled in a months-long standoff in Vietnam’s EEZ where a Chinese research vessel conducted a sweeping seismic survey of waters overlapping Vietnamese oil blocks.
In May, the same Chinese research vessel was involved in another month-long standoff with Malaysian ships in Malaysia’s EEZ, close to where a drillship contracted by Malaysian state oil firm Petronas had been operating.
Chinese incursions happened 89 times between 2016 and 2019, Malaysia’s Government said this month.
Indonesia has also begun to take a tougher stance. In January, Jakarta summoned China’s ambassador and dispatched air and sea patrols after Chinese vessels entered Indonesia’s EEZ around the northern Natuna islands.
What is likely to happen next?
As China continues to show its appetite for expansionism in the region, its neighbours are scrambling to create new alliances and strengthen old partnerships.
In a move seen as critical to boosting security cooperation with the US, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds will fly to Washington for annual talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper this week.
Apart from national security and coronavirus, the two nations will also discuss China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Excluded in the past, there are signs that Australia will now be invited to join the crucial Malabar naval exercises with India, US and Japan in November.
“By holding Malabar exercises and including Australia, India is sending a signal to partners such as US, Australia and Japan that it is willing to contribute to a rules-based order within the region,” Dr Nagy said.
“It’s willing to expand the ways it corporates and it’s willing to push back against China, as China really does exploit this window of opportunity in the coronavirus pandemic chaos that many countries are experiencing.”
However, experts like Richard McGregor, a senior fellow with The Lowy Institute, fear that the increasing presence of the US navy in the region will further heighten tensions.
“Generally speaking, the chances of some kind of conflict in the South China Sea are rising,” Mr McGregor said.
South China Sea: US clash with China now ‘inevitable’
19 Jul, 2020 8:33am
A clash within the South China Sea is now almost inevitable. The US has declared China’s territorial grab “illegal”. It wants its “bullied” neighbours to stand their ground.
“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” a US statement issued earlier this week asserts.
It’s not a change of opinion. But it is a loud declaration of intent to establish a “line in the sand” that Beijing should not cross.
“The United States is now explicitly declaring it illegal for China to engage in fishing, oil and gas exploration, or other economic activities in those areas, or to interfere with its neighbours’ rights to do so,” Asia Maritime Initiative senior fellow Gregory Poling says.
“The next time China does engage in illegal harassment of its neighbours within their EEZs [exclusive economic zones], a more forceful US response might lead China to double down out of a sense of nationalism,” he added.
China’s “wolf-warrior” rhetoric has given it little wiggle room to back down.
“Perhaps now Beijing feels like it’s pushed up against a wall,” Australian National University School of International Relations doctoral candidate Hunter Marston told news.com.au.
“All these countries are now more or less affirming the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision. Perhaps they [Beijing] say what else do they have to lose? You know, the gloves are off.”
And that lays the groundwork for open confrontation.
Beijing is getting irritated. The Chinese Communist Party has called Washington a “spoiler, saboteur and disrupter”.
“Although Washington doesn’t want to start a real war with China, there is the possibility of the unfolding of miscalculations if it continues to try and stir up trouble in the South China Sea,” declares the editor of the Communist Party’s China Daily.
Beijing’s diplomats are racing to re-establish dominance over the narrative.
“China’s position on the South China Sea issue has been consistent and clear-cut. While firmly safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, China has been committed to resolving disputes through negotiation and consultation with countries directly involved, managing differences through rules and mechanisms, and achieving win-win results through mutually beneficial co-operation,” a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the US said.
The embassy declares the South China Sea has “remained peaceful and stable and is still improving”, ignoring a recent spate of rammings of fishing vessels, high-seas stand-offs over sea exploration efforts and its arbitrary construction of military bases on artificial islands.
“Under the pretext of endorsing rules, it is using UNCLOS to attack China while refusing to ratify the Convention itself. Under the pretext of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight, it is recklessly infringing on other countries’ territorial sea and airspace and throwing its weight around in every sea of the world,” the spokesperson added.
“I think Washington’s really got international law at its back here, and so it’s hopefully welcomed as a legally defensible and robust statement in support of international law.”
“Despite being a non-claimant of the South China Sea, the US desires to stir up troubles. It takes advantage of regional countries’ claims to sow discord between these countries and China. It portrays a bully image of China,” writes National Institute for South China Sea Studies director Yan Yan.
But Beijing has been actively cultivating a “strong man” image in the region, rejecting any attempt to reach a real consensus. The Philippines and Vietnam have had several fishing vessels rammed by Chinese militia and coast guard vessels in recent months.
The United States has a keen interest in preventing China from asserting control over the South China Sea.
“Maintaining free and open access to this waterway is not only important for economic reasons, but also to uphold the global norm of freedom of navigation,” Mastro says.
“China’s ability to control this waterway would be a significant step toward displacing the United States from the Indo-Pacific region, expanding its economic influence, and generally reordering the region in its favour.”
China’s Communist Party has again issued a veiled warning to its neighbours.
“It is to be hoped that countries in the region remain clear-eyed about the progress they have made in agreeing a code of conduct for the South China Sea and do not let Washington’s ‘official’ meddling undermine the consensus that peace and stability benefit all in the region,” the Global Times states.
A line in the sand
Beijing’s successful tactic until now has been “creeping” expansionism. It makes a bold move (such as putting a weather station on a contested reef). It weathers the criticism. It makes the situation “the new normal”. Then it takes another bold move (such as turn that reef into a concrete island).
Washington’s declaration makes it harder to get away with such behaviour.
“This new rhetorical position won’t have much effect by itself. But as the opening gambit in a long-term effort to impose cost on China and rally support for US partners, it could be significant,” Poling writes.
“It is much easier to rally international support against ‘illegal’ activity than against actions that are merely distasteful or destabilising.
“It is also much more damaging to a country that aspires to global leadership to be accused of gross violations of international law.”
The likelihood of some form of a standoff in the South China Sea has increased.
“This seems especially likely amid the current pandemic, which has led Chinese diplomats to favour chest-thumping nationalism over de-escalation with its neighbours,” Poling argues.
Ultimately, however, he says, greater resistance could drive compromise.
But Beijing has a well-established tendency to respond to pressure with escalation.
“One of China’s main strategies in promoting its claims in the past has been to increase the risks for others exercising their rights by, for example, harassing other countries’ oil and gas exploration platforms, fishing vessels, and military vessels,” Mastro writes.
And Washington’s declaration is likely to cause Beijing to double down.
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