Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

China's Strategy in the South China Sea

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

China's Strategy in the South China Sea

Article excerpt

In recent years, no international maritime dispute has garnered more attention than the contest over the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea. The dispute involves the overlapping claims of six governments to territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, encompasses the main sea lines of communication that con-nect Southeast Asia with Northeast Asia, covers large fishing grounds and may contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. In the South China Sea dispute, no state attracts more attention than the People's Republic of China (PRC) because of its expansive claim, past uses of force over islands in these waters and its growing naval capabilities.

This article examines China's behaviour in the South China Sea disputes through the lens of its strategy for managing its claims. Since the mid-1990s, China has pursued a strategy of delaying the resolution of the dispute. The goal of this strategy is to consolidate China's claims, especially to maritime rights or jurisdiction over these waters, and to deter other states from strengthening their own claims at China's expense, including resource development projects that exclude China. Since the mid-2000s, the pace of China's efforts to consolidate its claim and deter others has increased through diplomatic, administrative and military means. Although China's strategy seeks to consolidate its own claims, it threatens weaker states in the dispute and is inherently destabilizing. As a result, the delaying strategy includes efforts to prevent the escalation of tensions among the claimants.

The article proceeds as follows. China's claims and interests in the South China Sea, which identify the goals and context for China's strategy, are examined in the next section. Then, the article describes China's use of a delaying strategy since 1949 and two periods when force was used: in 1974 over the Crescent Group in the Paracels and in 1988 over Johnson Reef in the Spratlys. The following two sections then examine the diplomatic, administrative, and military components of China's delaying strategy and efforts to manage tensions since the summer of 2011. Finally, the article examines the implications for cooperation and conflict in the dispute.

China's Claims and Interests in the South China Sea

In the South China Sea, Beijing claims territorial sovereignty over two groups of islands and maritime rights over related waters. The contemporary basis for China's territorial claims is a statement that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai issued in August 1951 during the Allied peace treaty negotiations with Japan. In the statement, Zhou declared China's sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. (1) In September 1958, China reaffirmed its claim to these islands when it asserted rights to territorial waters during the Jinmen crisis. The 1958 declaration marked the first time that China linked its claims to territorial sovereignty with the assertion of maritime rights, in this case, rights to territorial waters. From the mid 1970s to the present, official government statements have used roughly the same language to describe China's sovereignty claim. The claim is usually phrased as: "China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands (or South China Sea islands) and adjacent waters."

As the international maritime legal regime evolved, China began to codify its claims to maritime rights through the passage of domestic legislation. These laws harmonized China's legal system with the requirements of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 1992, the National People's Congress (NPC) passed a Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of the People's Republic of China, which reaffirmed the content of the 1958 declaration but contained more specific language. Following this law, China issued baselines for its territorial waters in 1996. In 1998, the NPC passed a Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf of the People's Republic of China, in which it claimed additional maritime rights beyond those contained in the 1992 law. …

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