World / Asia-Pacific

South China Sea: How we got to this stage

By Fu Ying and Wu Shicun (Xinhua) Updated: 2016-07-06 17:33

On January 22, 2013, the Philippines initiated an arbitral proceedings against China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Shortly after this announcement, China's Foreign Ministry made multiple official responses: "The Philippines and the Arbitral Tribunal have abused relevant procedures and forced ahead with the arbitration, disregarding the fact that the subject matter of the arbitration involves territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation and related matters, deliberately evading the declaration on optional exceptions made by China in 2006 under Article 298 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea", stating "China does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines" and therefore "will not participate in the proceedings".

Obviously, China disagrees with the Philippines which applied for arbitration on account that its consultations and negotiations with China reached an impasse. The fact is that ever since the Huangyan Incident, the Philippines refused to have any serious dialogue with China, let alone negotiations, nor did they consult the other DOC parties. As far as arbitration is concerned, China already made a declaration on optional exceptions in 2006 under Article 298 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Since the Arbitration Court jurisdiction concerns sovereignty, historic rights and entitlement, China is exempt from the arbitration. There is no provision in the convention to enforce an adverse award on China.

The subsequent Ren’ai Shoal Incident and Drilling Platform 981 Standoff further aggravated the situation. As its landing craft aground at Ren'ai Shoal was disintegrating, the Philippines kept looking for opportunities to start construction projects to get the shoal under its control. China has kept a watchful eye on the activities. In March 2014, China discovered that some Philippine warships were transporting supplies to Ren'ai Shoal and immediately intercepted them, which lead to a standoff between both sides. The Philippines incited a storm of media coverage of the incident, trying to elicit global attention and the US’s intervention.

In May 2014, a drilling operation by the HYSY 981 rig was completed inside the contiguous zone of China's Xisha Islands. The drilling was performed 17 nautical miles from the south of Zhongjian Island (Triton Island) from May 2 to August 15, during which it was harassed by hundreds of vessels sent by the Vietnamese government, resulting in intensified situation with multiple chases and even collisions between the China Coast Guard flotilla and the Vietnamese law enforcement vessels.

In 2013, in view of the changing situation in the South China Sea, and to meet the civil and defense needs on the islands and to defend its sovereignty, China launched reclamation projects on its controlled Nansha islands. As all of these islands are far away from the international navigation routes, there was no question of these projects having any impact on the freedom of navigation. But the US and the Philippines kept accusing China and hyping the issue. In response to the concerns, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying made a detailed explanation at a press conference held on April 9, 2015: The Chinese government has been carrying out maintenance and construction work on some of the garrisoned Nansha islands and reefs with the main purposes of optimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China's international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas. The relevant construction, which is well within China's sovereign responsibility. It does not impact or target any country. It is recently reported that a series of projects are underway to construct facilities that can provide public service, like lighthouses, automatic weather stations, marine observation centers and marine research institutes. Five lighthouses for navigation safety have been built, and four of them have been put into use.

China’s actions have not been fully understood by its neighbors who expressed concerns. The US also stepped up its intervention, buzzing over China’s island reclamation projects using rhetoric like “reaching too far and too fast” and “islands militarization” to pile pressure on China, and even sending ships to sail near the Nansha and Xisha Islands. All these were perceived in China as serious security challenges.

From the perspective of many Chinese people, the US is the invisible hand behind the rising tension in the South China Sea. First, the US is increasingly targeting at China as it steps up its Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy. In 2013, the US announced to reinforce its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by deploying 60% of its fleet and 60% of its overseas air force to the region by 2020. Also, the US military has purported to be threatened by “China’s anti-access and area denial efforts”, and actively promoted some operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle, with China as a main target. These moves have undoubtedly further complicated and intensified the situation in the South China Sea and in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. Many Chinese scholars start to suspect that the US may be creating illusionary threats and crises in the region which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Since 2014, the US has made clearer responses to China in the South China Sea, in postures of direct intervention in the disputes and often in favor of other claimants, especially its own allies.

Trudeau visits Sina Weibo
May gets little gasp as EU extends deadline for sufficient progress in Brexit talks
Ethiopian FM urges strengthened Ethiopia-China ties
Yemen's ex-president Saleh, relatives killed by Houthis
Most Popular
Hot Topics