Page 1 of 2 Eyes on Crimea, China makes its move
By Donald K Emmerson
While much of the world was busy watching Russia swallow Crimea, few realized that an also dangerous territorial tit-for-tat had begun to unfold earlier this month more than 5,000 miles away in the South China Sea.
At Second Thomas Shoal, a handful of Philippine marines have long been stationed and re-provisioned on the rusting deck of the BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine naval ship half-sunk into the reef in 1999. Ever since, the vessel and the marines have served to embody Manila's claim of sovereignty over the shoal. More recently, China has tried to raise the salience of its own claim by intensively patrolling the area.
On March 9, 2014, China made a move to end the status quo at
the shoal. For the first time in 15 years, Beijing stopped Manila from delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre. The Chinese Coast Guard forced two Philippine ships to turn away. Manila answered the blockade by successfully dropping food and water to the marines by air. It was then up to Manila whether to send in another supply ship or plane, and up to Beijing whether to leave it alone, chase it away, sink it, or shoot it down.
China claims that the Philippine ships were "loaded with construction materials" to build up Manila's position. Manila says the ships were merely trying to re-provision the marines "to improve the conditions there," not "to expand or build permanent structures on the shoal."
Dominance and declaration
A dozen years ago China and the 10 states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the Philippines, signed a "2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," or DoC. The signers undertook "to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force." China's threat of force against the Philippine supply ships at Second Thomas Shoal on March 9 violated the DoC.
The DoC's signers also agreed "to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability." Insofar as the Philippine resupply effort on March 9 was designed to continue years of seaborne provisioning that had maintained the status quo at Second Thomas Shoal since 1999, it did not innovate a complication and was not an escalation.
The states that negotiated the DoC in 2002 agreed not to inhabit "the presently uninhabited" land features in the South China Sea. But Second Thomas Shoal was inhabited in 2002. Manila had been rotating its marines through the Sierra Madre and thereby occupying the shoal for three years before the DoC was signed. Nor did China's blockade of the Philippine ships earlier this month keep the signers' promise "to handle their differences in a constructive manner."
The United States, which shares a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, voiced concern about China's action at Second Thomas Shoal. "This is a provocative move that raises tensions," said US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo."
It is too early to know the outcome of China's latest escalation. But it is not premature to place the move in historical context. Consider this incomplete listing of incidents involving unilateral Chinese behavior in the area over the past decade:
China's occupation of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal; its repeated harassment of Vietnamese and Philippine ships; the assertive moves of its warships around James Shoal, which Malaysia claims, including firing weapons into the air; its announcement that any non-Chinese citizens or vessels must first ask China's permission to fish in a zone that covers more than half of the South China Sea; its refusal to clarify the meaning of the wide-reaching U-shaped line on the maps that it uses to warrant its sovereignty over the sea's waters and/or land features; its refusal publicly to assuage Jakarta regarding the part of Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone east of Natuna that the U-shaped line cuts off; and now its expulsion of Philippine supply vessels from Second Thomas Shoal.
The long and ongoing record of unilateral Chinese assertions or aggressions in the South and East China Sea no longer leaves room for doubt as to Beijing's intention. China wants and is trying to achieve dominance over the waters behind what it calls the "first island chain." The Southeast Asian portion of that chain runs from Taiwan and the Philippines southwest along the Borneo coast to Indonesia's Natuna and Anambas Islands, turns north to parallel the Malayan peninsula, crosses the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand, and continues northward, skirting Vietnam, to China's own island of Hainan east of the Tonkin Gulf-precisely the land features that fringe the u-shaped line.
For at least three reasons, China's leaders should not be upset if observers conclude that they have eventual dominance in mind. First, dominance in practice can have hard or soft edges; its injuriousness can vary. Second, why would Beijing avow such sweeping pretensions with such vehemence if it did not sincerely want its desire for primacy in the South China Sea to be acknowledged rather than doubted? Third, if its claims to sovereignty are fairly assessed and found valid, how is the mantle of dominance not deserved?
China is not alone. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have laid down markers of their own. All six claimants are responsible, in different ways and to varying degrees, for the volatile imbroglio that persists in the South China Sea. None of these contenders, however, has used force or threatened force more often in furthering its claim than China has.
Beijing's argument for historically based rights cannot be dismissed in advance. If it were ever fully clarified and impartially appraised, China's case might even hold more water, as it were, than the arguments of China's rivals. No equitable and lasting solution to the problem can ignore Beijing's position, however presumptuous it may be. In the meantime, by unilaterally creating facts on the sea, China is trying to implement its dominance as a "new normal" to which all of the other claimants, and outsiders including the United States, must defer.
What will ASEAN do?
The question is not "What does China intend?" The answer - dominance of some kind and degree - is known. The question is "What, if anything, is anyone else prepared to do?"
Neither the US nor Japan is about to go to war over competing claims in the South China Sea. Washington is now preoccupied with Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea-not to mention Secretary of State John Kerry's relentless yet (so far) fruitless diplomacy on Iran, Israel-Palestine, and Syria. The mysterious fate of Malaysia Airlines' Flight 370 has absorbed any leftover bandwidth of global attention. Given these distractions, China could hardly have chosen a better time to blockade the Philippine ships.
The South China Sea is the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. No set of countries is more directly - adjacently - impacted by what China does there. The question raised by China's blockade is: What will ASEAN do? Will it continue to ignore China's moves? Or will it, however politely, resist them?