The South China Sea: Making a splash
Economist, JAN 30, 2016
accessed Jan 30, 2016
l 美國派軍艦穿越南海之訊息不明確。到底是「自由航行」(freedom of navigation)以挑戰中國對島礁的主權呢？還是「無害通過」(innocent passage)間接承認了中國對島礁的主權？
AS PARTING gestures go, it was a risky one. Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, leaves office in May, having lost an election on January 16th. But rather than slink out quietly, this week he visited Itu Aba, known in Chinese as Taiping, the biggest natural island in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, garrisoned by Taiwan but also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines and Vietnam were incensed, China much less so: it appreciates Mr Ma’s adherence to the fiction that there is but “one China”. From its point of view, Taiwan’s territorial claims in the much-disputed sea are its own.
Besides reasserting Taiwan’s claim, Mr Ma wanted to rebut arguments made by the Philippines, in a case it has brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. This argues that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Itu Aba is a rock that cannot sustain human life. So it is entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, but not the 200-mile exclusive economic zone accorded to habitable islands. Mr Ma also possibly hoped to advertise his own “South China Sea Peace Initiative”, which he announced last May but which was largely ignored.
The risk is that the Philippines and Vietnam may retaliate in some way—perhaps even with high-profile visits to islands they occupy, though this is unlikely—and that this, in turn, provokes China. America is so alarmed that its representative in Taiwan issued an unusually forthright denunciation of Mr Ma’s “extremely unhelpful” day-trip as soon as it was announced.
Tensions over the sea have been rising in any case. China has been building frenetically, turning rocks and reefs in the Spratlys into islands, three of them already bigger than Itu Aba, with airstrips. It has recently landed civilian aircraft carrying “tourists” on one (see picture). And China has again moved a large oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam—as it did in 2014 when it provoked fatal anti-Chinese riots.
China derides all criticism. One Chinese official compares rival claimants’ complaints to “smashing the windows of your neighbours’ house and then saying, ‘We are being threatened’.” China believes America is stoking alarm as part of a broader strategy to contain it. It is true that its neighbours are gradually stepping up security co-operation with each other and with America. Just this week Vietnam approved an Indian satellite-tracking centre on its soil to share imagery, including pictures of the South China Sea.
The worry is that China is steadily expanding its presence until its dominance of the sea becomes an incontestable fact. This also concerns America: the sea is a vital trade artery, and China threatens 70 years of American naval supremacy in the western Pacific. In a report published in January, commissioned by the Pentagon to look at America’s strategic “rebalance” towards Asia, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, projected that by 2030, on current trends, “the South China Sea will be virtually a Chinese lake, as the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico is for the United States today.”
Three approaches are being tried to moderate China’s behaviour—legal, diplomatic and military. The broader aim of the Philippines’ case under UNCLOS is to show that China’s historic claim—a “nine-dash line” on maps encompassing most of the sea—has no legal basis. In October China suffered a setback when the court in The Hague accepted that the case fell within its jurisdiction. But even if the court rules in the Philippines’ favour, China has made clear that it will ignore it. South-East Asian claimants in the sea—the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia—have hoped that their regional club, ASEAN, can show a united front. But China prefers to negotiate with (and bully) ASEAN members individually. And it skilfully exploits the body’s internal differences.
As for military deterrence, a marked increase in defence spending across the region in recent years still leaves America as the only power capable of standing up to China. As a reminder of this, in November the American navy conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” in the South China Sea. These operations, conducted around the world, involve sending warships to challenge excessive maritime claims by sailing through the claimed waters. In the South China Sea, America says it takes no position on the sovereignty disputes but does want international law to apply. In this exercise, the USS Lassen sailed close to Subi reef, where China has built an artificial island on what was once a feature submerged at high tide.
Yet the message was muddied. In January Ashton Carter, America’s secretary of defence, explained that the operation had been conducted as “innocent passage”, ie, under a provision of UNCLOS that allows warships to enter even territorial waters so long as they do nothing that might have a military purpose. So it is not clear quite what point America was trying to make.
John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, was in China this week (see article), after a trip that took in Cambodia and Laos, which holds the chairmanship of ASEAN this year. He spoke of the need to avoid a “destabilising cycle of mistrust or escalation” in the South China Sea. At a gathering on February 15th and 16th at a ranch in Sunnylands, California, Barack Obama will play host to the leaders of all ten ASEAN countries. The unprecedented summit is a symbolic demonstration of American support for ASEAN. China will probably scent another attempt to rally the region against it. But nothing suggests it will be deterred from trying to turn the sea into its own lake.