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Is China grabbing the South China Sea?

Napoleon warned us that China was a sleeping giant best left

undisturbed. No longer. As is clear from the visit of President Xi

Jinping to France this week, the giant is well awake, even happy to

pay a ceremonial visit to Napoleon’s tomb, affirming its

self-confidence. Not only has the West disturbed China, often for very selfish motives, but many of the West’s elite also appear to fear the result. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the debate about China’s growing naval power and in particular its attitude towards China’s claim for sovereignty over the South China Sea, to which other bordering nations- the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia- also claim rights.

Long before Napoleon, China had Admiral Zheng He who in the fifteenth century led large fleets as far away as Africa. But unlike his European contemporaries Zheng He and his emperor voyaged mainly out of curiosity. They possessed no idea of subjugation, slavery or colonisation. They were not on any mission to “civilize”. Only in the most recent years has China given its navy prominence and even today its expenditure on naval power compared with the US or Europe is small.

Last week ships of the Chinese coast guard showered with high powered water jets Philippine fishing boats. For years there have been on and off clashes with the Philippines and Vietnam over territorial water rights.

It’s all been going on for a long time. Ten years ago, a Philippine

warship found Chinese fishing boats close to the Scarborough reef, a submerged shoal of rocks that the Philippines claim. The fishermen called in two Chinese civilian patrol boats. Beijing persuaded the Philippines to withdraw their warship and replace it with a civilian coast guard ship. But China did not withdraw neither its fishing boats nor its patrol boats. “Chicken can be a dangerous game”, The Economist editorialised.

Neighbouring countries have rushed to occupy as many of the sea’s land spots as possible. Today China controls the entire Paracels islands and 15 reefs and shoals within the Spratlys. Both islands probably have in their waters large deposits of oil, gas and minerals. Since 2007 China has repeatedly warned foreign oil companies that cooperating with Vietnam would affect their business in China.

Beijing insists that its historic map, claiming the whole South China Sea, is a valid territorial claim. It argues that this has been so since the 15th century. But its contours are vague, and it’s not

recognised under international law.

Contradicting this claim, China has ratified the UN’s Law of The Sea Treaty. The treaty compels states to surrender most of their

historical claims in favour of the maritime zones awarded under the convention- in particular a 200 kilometre off- shore economic zone. (But the US has not, shooting itself in the foot.)

The other countries involved have not stood still. The Philippines

proposes that ASEAN (the regional cooperation body) set aside disputes among themselves and form a united front to force Beijing to clarify its aims. The US has reiterated UN policy that there must be freedom of navigation in the sea and, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, Beijing is worried that US involvement will internationalize the disputes, isolating China.

The report also points out that “the proliferation of domestic actors and the complicated structure behind Chinese management of the issue has often been described with reference to the traditional myth of nine dragons stirring up the sea.

In Beijing there is a bulky bureaucracy which includes 11 ministerial level government agencies, all of which have some say on sea matters. Then there are the powerful national oil companies. Apparently, the politburo for years has not given any directives and the foreign

ministry lacks the clout to bring them into line, although it has to

carry the can when dealing with the outside world. Its work is

complicated by the lack of legal clarity, growing nationalist opinion within China, the belief that economic growth and political stability at home outweigh foreign policy and that a vociferous military outranks the foreign ministry, even not reporting some of its decisions to the politburo.

China loses much credibility with its refusal to take the dispute to

the International Court of Justice. A few years ago Nigeria took the

issue of its dispute with neighbouring Cameroon over the oil-rich

Bokassa peninsula to the Court. It lost and President Olusegun

Obasanjo gracefully turned over the territory to Cameroon. China also refuses to use the arbitration mechanisms of the Law of the Sea.

 China should lose no time in sorting out its conflicting priorities

and take the law of the sea issues to the International Court of

Justice as Nigeria did or make use of the Law of the Sea’s dispute

procedures. It cannot win its case by intimidation.


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