Last Friday, a U.S. State Department spokesman stated that Beijing’s recent decision to upgrade tiny Sansha City in the disputed Paracel Islands to a “prefecture-level city” and establish a military garrison there runs “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” That muted protest was just the excuse Beijing wanted to play a round of Down With American Imperialism. The Foreign Ministry called in a U.S. Embassy official for a tongue-lashing Saturday. State-run media also went to town, telling the U.S. to “shut up” and stop “instigating” conflict in the region.
Why the irruption of ire? Partly it’s because Beijing’s various factions need to look tough on sovereignty issues ahead of the upcoming Party Congress. The Congress will pick the next generation of Party leaders.
But another reason is that China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has caused a backlash among its neighbors and hardened their determination to resist Chinese bullying. Instead of admitting its mistake, Beijing wants to treat the U.S. as the “black hand” that is poisoning its relations with Southeast Asia. This may have a purely propagandistic purpose, but the danger is that the Communist Party will now fixate on America as its regional enemy.
In a 2000 white paper, Beijing claimed that the source of its “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands, the most important features in the South China Sea, is imperial China’s historical record as “the first to discover and name the islands as the Nansha Islands and the first to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over them.”
This basis is disputed. China may have some of the oldest surviving maps of the area, but aboriginal, Malay, Indian and Arab traders traversed these seas before Han Chinese began their explorations. And the maps produced by China and other countries from ancient times through the 20th century show the islands as uninhabited dangers to navigation, not destinations under anyone’s sovereignty.
Militarist Japan, ironically, is the true origin of China’s claims. As the great scholar of the Chinese diaspora Wang Gungwu noted recently, World War II-era Japanese maps that showed the entire South China Sea as a Japanese lake were the first serious claim to sovereignty over the islands.
A second irony is that the People’s Republic’s current claims date to a 1947 map issued by the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, which drew a u-shaped line of 11 dashes around more than 90% of the South China Sea. Mao’s regime republished that map with a simplified nine-dashed line after it routed the nationalists, claiming the sea as China’s “historic waters.”
Beijing continues to use this map to justify its claims, although it alternates between arguing that its claims rest on the U.N.’s Law of the Sea treaty, which it signed and ratified in 1996, or otherwise on territorial rights that predate the treaty. Whatever the case, Beijing acts as if it owns all of the sea within the line, last year condemning Vietnamese exploration of areas that fall both within the “territorial” line and Vietnam’s coastal exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
Resolving the ambiguity about how China makes its claims is more than an academic question. For the U.S. it matters because about a third of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea, and freedom of navigation is a vital U.S. interest. China’s neighbors also care, since they are most immediately confronted by what they term Beijing’s “creeping assertiveness.”
Even if all the disputed islands belong to China, the area of water they control under maritime law would be relatively small. Only a handful of the islands are capable of sustaining human habitation, which is required to claim a 200-mile EEZ, and some of those would be circumscribed where they overlapped with the EEZs generated by other countries’ coastline. Rocks and shoals only generate a 12-mile radius of territorial waters at most.
This raises another demonstrably false claim made by Beijing—that Southeast Asian nations accepted its rights to the islands until the 1970s, when potential oil and gas reserves were discovered. Not so: The 1947 map was a matter of international dispute at the time.
It was only after the hydrocarbon discoveries that China began bullying its way into the islands. In 1974, the People’s Liberation Army launched a surprise attack and ejected (South) Vietnamese forces stationed on the Paracel Islands. In 1988, the PLA again surprised the Vietnamese on Johnson Atoll in the Spratlys. Beijing seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1994 without a fight.
Now Beijing accuses its neighbors of stirring up tensions. But in June it staged its biggest provocation since 1994: putting up for bid oil exploration blocks that lie within Vietnam’s EEZ and overlap with blocks that Vietnam has already leased. This is especially threatening to Vietnam because China is no longer dependent for such contracts on multinational companies, which shy away from the risk of military conflict around their rigs. The state-owned China National Off-shore Oil Corporation is developing its own deep-sea exploration platforms, a new way for Beijing to mark its claims.
Meanwhile, Beijing is also using its navy and militias to escalate the tension. During the standoff with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal in May, nearly 100 fishing boats were inside the atoll at one time, according to the Philippine government. Last year, its vessels cut the acoustic cables on two Vietnamese exploration ships—much as they tried to do to the USNS Impeccable in 2009. And in June, China’s Defense Ministry announced it had started “combat ready” patrols in waters claimed by Vietnam.
To Beijing’s mind, being able to make outlandish territorial claims and violate international law at will is the prerogative of a great power. That was certainly the message Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi delivered at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi in July 2010. He described the South China Sea as a “core national interest,” and he followed that up by saying, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”
So it’s no wonder that Southeast Asian nations that 40 years ago looked to the U.S. to halt the spread of communism are now asking Washington to help push back against Chinese encroachment. The wonder is that Beijing seems surprised that it is again isolated in the region and surrounded by U.S. allies. But as China’s power grows, some of China’s neighbors realize that the window of opportunity for a unified response that will change Beijing’s behavior is closing.
The best chance of avoiding a nasty showdown is a strong U.S. response. Washington has maintained its own ambiguity toward the South China Sea, saying it takes no side in the dispute but has a national interest in the peaceful resolution.
That’s fine as far as the islands and the small areas of territorial waters around them. But Beijing has shown that it has no interest in a negotiated settlement and will use force to claim and dominate the entire South China Sea if it can. Washington needs to call out the U-shaped line as the travesty of international law that it is, and state clearly that it will fight to keep the sea lanes open.