The recent disputes in the South China Sea, as well as several territorial claims logged with the United Nations, have led to calls from Chinese experts for an overhaul of the country's sea-faring strategy.
China Yuzheng 311, the country's largest fishery patrol ship, travels to the port at Sanya, on the island province of Hainan, on March 19 this year after finishing the first phase of its fishery protection and maritime surveillance mission in the South China Sea. [China News Service]
The South China Sea, part of the Pacific Ocean, covers an area of around 3.5 million sq m, while China's maritime jurisdiction in total, including the East China Sea and Yellow Sea, is around 3 million sq m, said Wang Hanling, an expert in maritime affairs and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).
"But sometimes, disputes occur due to divisions in delimiting boundaries with China's eight neighboring countries," he said.
China shares common waters with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. However, three high-profile moves in March this year saw tensions rise in the region.
The month began with a Malaysian official landing on two reefs, off China's Nansha Islands, and claiming the islands as his country's territory; just a few days later, United States spy vessel the USNS Impeccable intruded into China's exclusive economic zone without permission, violating international and Chinese laws, and, in the same week, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, president of the Philippines, signed a controversial bill into law that claimed Huangyan Island and the Nansha Islands were Filipino territory.
Last week, Vietnam also submitted an individual proposal and a joint proposal with Malaysia to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that questioned the outer limits of the continental shelf. The deadline for submissions is today, while the Chinese foreign ministry immediately branded the claims "illegal and invalid".
The South China Sea, or the "South Gate", plays an essential role in China's security, both economically and strategically, explained Wang. It provides a transportation route for 80 percent of the crude oil imported from the Middle East and Africa, it is itself rich in oil and gas reserves, and it is vital to the nation's efforts to diversify trade routes to bolster its export economy.
Disputes over the sea have occurred since the early 1970s.
In the Philippines, the stance over Huangyan Island and the Nansha Islands had been affected by an instability exacerbated by the global financial crisis, said Chinese analysts, with Wang accusing the Philippine leadership of resorting to "nationalistic" measures and "political stunts" to win supporters and votes ahead of a general election.
However, the waters have been calmed for the time being after serious diplomatic efforts. Following the signing of the Archipelagic Baselines Law, which states the Philippines may claim an extended continental shelf of up to 350 nautical miles, the country made only a "partial submission" to the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf (CLCS) on April 8.
The claim simply involved the undisputed Benham Rise, an extinct volcanic ridge off the east coast of Luzon, while the Philippine government also stated it wanted to "avoid provoking or exacerbating maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea with its neighboring countries".
Meanwhile, the nation's Manila Times reported its government had "stopped the clock on the UN deadline and bought time to sort out border issues with its neighbors".
Gao Jianjun, a professor in international maritime law at the China University of Political Science and Law, said the Philippines was "balancing a careful and cautionary approach" as its territorial claims in the South China Sea would not only upset China, but also Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The submission of Manila's claims over Huangyan Island and the Nansha Islands had been indefinitely postponed, as agreed by the UN, said Gao, but "claims over the disputed territory by the Philippines and other neighboring countries may be made later".
Vietnam and Malaysia's submission this month, meanwhile, could prove less complex as the rules of procedure for the CLCS state: "In cases where a land or maritime dispute exists, the commission shall not consider and qualify a submission made by any of the states concerned in the dispute".
The Chinese Permanent Mission to the UN immediately lodged its opposition to the joint submission on the CLCS on May 6, while Gao Jianjun said "dialogue and cooperation in developing the region based on China's sovereignty is the ultimate solution".
In November 2002, China and the 10-member Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea, which laid a political framework foundation for long-term peace and stability.
According to the declaration, countries should "undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned". It also states that "parties should exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner."
Wang Hanling said disputes submitted by ASEAN countries were not in line with the declaration, but explained they were more of an attempt to make a public "stand".