China’s Recent Actions Have Ratcheted up Tensions in International Waters. Who Will Stop Them?

China’s policy of building militarized outposts astride the world’s most heavily-trafficked waterways must be understood as a potential threat to freedom of navigation and the maintenance of peace in Asia.

China’s attempt to claim approximately 1.4 million square miles of open ocean in the South China Sea is igniting a geopolitical firestorm. By asserting ownership rights to economically critical trade routes and fishing grounds, China has created the largest territorial dispute in history.

China has laid claim to nearly 90% of the South China Sea – a move that is unprecedented and likely without legal merit. The U.S. and our Asian allies along with the Bookings Institution argue that such a massive claim to ownership of oceanic territory such a great distance from land is “inconsistent with international law.”

This territorial grab would give China control over a zone through which half of global merchant shipping, a third of the world’s oil shipments, and two-thirds of global LNG shipments pass through. In addition, this territory represents over a 10th of the world’s fish catch.

The area in dispute has been a point of contention for years between China and its neighbors. China’s fishing fleet (the world’s largest) operates increasingly within the territorial waters of Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines under the protection of the Chinese Coast Guard. Since the beginning of 2016, tensions have continued to escalate as incidents have multiplied and it becomes evident that China is using its vast fishing fleet to advance its claim to the territorial waters.

The U.S. became involved in the ongoing dispute, which had traditionally been a regional issue, in 2013 when China started to dredge and dump millions of tons of sand and coral onto a live reef in the Spratly Island chain in order to create artificial islands.

China’s foreign ministry asserted their right to build on the features saying the chain is part of its “indisputable” sovereign territory while misrepresenting the intended use—initially declaring the island building was intended for civilian services like search and rescue.

Though Chinese President Xi Jinpin pledged not to militarize the South China Sea when he visited the White House in September 2015, satellite imagery confirms China has deployed J11 Fighter Jets along with a fully operational surface-to-air missile system to at least one of the man-made islands.

If China continues its militarization of these artificial islands in contested waters, the world will lose control of the sea lanes where an estimated $5.3 trillion in cargo and natural resources pass annually. In addition, the South China Sea is thought to be an oil-rich area—whose drilling rights would also be exclusively claimed by China.

China argues it has not hindered any commercial navigation. However, there is evidence to the contrary. In 2012, when China seized control of the marine rich Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines (the shoal is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone) it restricted banana imports from the country, citing health reasons. And in 2010, China effectively banned the export of raw earth materials to Japan amid tensions over another set of disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Speaking to a small group of reporters in Beijing two weeks ago, Liu Zhenmin, vice foreign minister, sent a clear warning: The United States should not provoke China in the South China Sea without expecting retaliation. “Chinese people and the government feel like we haven’t been treated fairly because the U.S. is blaming China for rising tensions in the South China Sea,” said Liu, who added that “what matters is that the U.S. government has recognized that times have changed, [and the U.S.] can gain much more through cooperation than going to war.”

China is party to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that framework provides “no legal basis” for China to claim its “nine-dash” area, said Alessio Patalano, senior lecturer in Naval History and East Asian Security at King’s College London.

Manila has insisted the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the Philippines and China have both ratified, should be used to resolve the territorial dispute over isolated reefs and islets, though China has refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing the Permanent Court of Arbitration – which is more than a century old and based in The Hague – has no jurisdiction over the case. Vice foreign minister Zhenmin said China would neither participate in the case nor accept the outcome, adding that       “[the court’s ruling] would not affect China’s sovereign claims in the seas.”

What are the implications for the U.S. in this issue that is becoming a worldwide dispute?

In response the placement of the surface-to-air missiles on the islands, the U.S. Navy dispatched the USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers and the 7th Fleet flagship, saying the U.S. Navy will continue to conduct freedom of navigation patrols. Speaking at a conference in San Francisco, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. was prepared to increase military deployments to the Asia-Pacific region and would spend nearly $425 million to pay for more joint military exercise with countries who feel threatened by Beijing.

China angrily denounced the U.S. dispatch and sail-through, and stated that in the future it would seek to prevent such actions. Given the high tensions and traffic, a greater chance of an accident or skirmish between China and the U.S. exists that would further escalate the situation.

Proving to allies Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, as well as to trade partners Vietnam and Malaysia that the U.S. is serious about upholding international law and preserving order, is critical to ensuring that China does not browbeat its neighbors into submission.

All types of complications can arise given the ‘gray zones’ that have emerged in this unprecedented situation. The U.S. Navy must prepare for a variety of plausible scenarios—perhaps where ‘private’ Chinese fishing vessels seek to impede the safe passage of U.S. or ally ships. Will our Navy run the risk of sinking these ‘civilian’ vessels no matter the risk they pose to safe navigation?

It seems we may find out soon enough. Either the U.S. Navy will continue to patrol and defend these contested waters or not. And China will try to stop the U.S. or they won’t. And the world will be watching to see whose will is greater.

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