This large maritime region straddles important sea lanes and is host to several overlapping territorial claims. Some disagreements date back to the end of the Cold War, others as far back ar World War II. Not only do these seas harbor substantial fish stocks and provide passage for some 30 percent of the world’s seaborne trade, they are also believed to host significant hydrocarbon resources. As a nexus point for international trade, energy supplies, and big power politics, the China Seas represent a glaring example of an offshore resource dispute that the transatlantic community cannot afford to ignore.
Several recent incidents in the South and East China Seas suggest cause for concern. While disputes between China and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank date back decades, tensions markedly increased in the late 2000s as oil prices rose. The latest encounter at the Scarborough Shoal resulted from the attempt by a Philippine patrol vessel to arrest Chinese fishermen just 220 kilometers off the Philippine island of Luzon. In September 2010, two Chinese fishing boats allegedly rammed a Japanese coastguard vessel. December 2011 saw the death of a South Korean coast guard captain at the hands of Chinese fishermen. And in March 2012, China arrested two Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracel Islands. In a further assertion of China’s rights last week, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) started drilling its first deep-water oil exploration well in the South China Sea, 320 kilometers south-east of Hong Kong.
While the triggers for many of these clashes were fishermen who most likely had little knowledge of or respect for international maritime law, the speed and manner of escalation is reflective of long-standing tensions between the coastal states in the region. Unlike many other off-shore boundary disputes, these disagreements about boundaries are fundamental, deriving from China’s claim of historic rights over large areas of the China Seas. The provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that address the demarcation of Exclusive Economic Zones appear to be unacceptable to China. As the largest and most powerful country in the region, China believes it has both the right and the clout to have its way. Its behavior in these seas over the last few years also reflects bureaucratic tensions between institutions that wish to secure their own private interests and foreign ministry officials who wish to present China as a responsible international citizen.
Irrespective of who in China is responsible, the net result is that other littoral states are strengthening their own maritime forces and going to considerable lengths to ensure that the U.S. military remains engaged in East Asia. Recent statements by the U.S. government, including its intention to establish a new base in Darwin, Australia, suggest American maritime power will continue to be a dominant presence in the region. The danger is that if China eventually decides to impose its will on the China Seas, it will have the economic leverage and military assets to back up its rhetoric, although that day has fortunately not yet come. And although the European Union emphasizes the need for the peaceful resolution of these disputes on the basis of international law, particularly UNCLOS, the United States cannot take this approach as it has not ratified this convention.
The apparent clarification by a government official in February that China does not claim sovereignty over the entire South China Sea provides an opportunity for the transatlantic community to persuade China to submit its claims to UNCLOS in order to resolve these disputes peacefully. A useful first step, however, would be for the U.S. Senate to ratify UNCLOS. Only then could the transatlantic community act together to bring China to this multilateral forum.
Geoffrey Kemp and Philip Andrews-Speed are senior fellows with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC. This commentary first appeared as a Transatlantic Take on the website of the German Marshall Fund at http://blog.gmfus.org/2012/05/chinas-maritime-quarrels-are-a-cause-for-concern/