US, China ties in choppy waters

Sunanda K Datta-Ray | Updated on: Thursday, May 30, 2019, 02:08 PM IST


China is anxious that the dark clouds gathering over the South China Sea should not damage its relations with the United States. Hence the signal sent out recently by Fu Ying, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress, who argued in an article in a leading British newspaper, “Fundamentally, China and the US have a common interest in maintaining peace and the freedom of navigation in the area. For the greater good, the two countries should be able to find a way to cooperate.”

But there is no suggestion of the Chinese accommodating its smaller neighbours or modifying its own position. On the contrary, the speech by former State councillor Dai Bingguo at the recent China-US Dialogue on the South China Sea in Washington suggested an ominous parallel with the Sino-Indian border dispute. Dai boasted of Beijing’s commitment to the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence and its proclamation in the 1950s that all “historical boundary issues” would be settled in accordance with it.

“In the following decades, China has resolved its boundary questions with 12 out of 14 land neighbours through negotiations,” said Dai, without mentioning that that the two exceptions are India and Bhutan. “They have surveyed and demarcated around 20,000 kilometres of boundaries; about 90 per cent of China’s land boundary … There is no reason why disputes in the South China Sea cannot be resolved through peaceful negotiations.”


In practice, this seems to mean that China’s smaller neighbours, as well as Japan, which have interests in the South China Sea, must abide by Beijing’s position. Washington is warned not to support these other claimants and reminded that since the US and China have no direct bilateral quarrels, there is no reason why they should not work together.  That ignores the implicit American belief that its global authority depends on being able to operate anywhere in the world Washington thinks necessary.

At the heart of this dispute lies the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea with its alleged 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The total value of the trade that passes through this expanse of water is estimated at $5.3 trillion. Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines all have competing claims.

Rival claimants have wrangled over the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has increased in recent years as the Chinese backed their expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols, although Fu Ying’s article dismissed this factor by claiming that the total area of all the islands and shoals is not more than 20 sq. km. However, the exclusive economic zone is considerable. The US assertion that it opposes restrictions on freedom of navigation and unlawful sovereignty claims is seen to be aimed at China, especially since in October 2015, the US sailed a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands China has created.


The Americans say it was to assert freedom of navigation but the action provoked China’s warning that the US should “not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing.” China claims a huge area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southern province of Hainan. The claim is based on many South-east Asian nations having been tributary to Chinese emperors in the misty past. Vietnam retorts that China had never claimed sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands before the 1940s. In fact, Vietnam had actively ruled over both since the 17th Century and says it has documents to prove it.

The problem was forced on the modern world’s attention in 1974 when the Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops. The two sides clashed again in 1988 in the Spratlys, with Vietnam again coming off worse, losing about 60 sailors. In early 2012, China and the Philippines engaged in a lengthy maritime stand-off, accusing each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China), a little more than 160 km from the Philippines, but five times that distance from China.

In July 2012 China angered Vietnam and the Philippines when it formally created Sansha city, an administrative body based in the Paracels which it says oversees Chinese territory in the South China Sea. Complaints that the Chinese navy sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations in late 2012 led to large anti-China protests in Vietnam’s streets.


In January 2013, Manila said it was taking China to a United Nations tribunal under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims. In May 2014, the introduction by China of a drilling rig in waters near the Paracel Islands led to multiple collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships. In April last year satellite images showed China building an airstrip on reclaimed land in the Spratlys. In addition to physically increasing the size of islands or creating altogether new islands, the Chinese are reportedly piling sand on existing reefs, and constructing ports, military installations, and airstrips –particularly in the Spratlys.

China maintains that international law forbids foreign militaries to conduct intelligence gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its EEZ. According to the US, countries should have freedom of navigation through EEZs in the sea and not be required to notify claimants of military activities. China’s claims threaten important maritime passages that facilitate trade and the movement of naval forces. In response to China’s assertive presence in the disputed territory, Japan has sold military ships and equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam to improve their maritime security capacity and deter Chinese aggression.

In recent years, China has built three airstrips on the contested Spratlys, and militarised Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system. China has also warned its South-east Asian neighbours not to drill for oil and gas in the contested region, which has also disrupted other nations’ oil exploration and seismic survey activities. Beijing refuses to accept the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to which the Philippines complained. The deployment of US destroyer ships is intended to challenge China’s claims in international waters and assert the principle of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The US, which has warned China not to “elbow aside” the countries it is in conflict with over the islands, is committed to ensuring freedom of navigation and securing sea lines of communication. It also has a defence treaty with the Philippines. For the moment, it is content to let the South-east Asian leaders try to resolve the disputes by diplomatic means. Their failure to do so could not only undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilising arms build-ups but also precipitate a confrontation between the Lone Superpower and Asia’s ambitious aspirant.

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Published on: Saturday, July 16, 2016, 12:52 AM IST