Geopolitical chess game heats up South China Sea

China's move to set up a military garrison at Sansha on disputed Yongxing Island (also known as Woody Island) in the Xisha chain (claimed by the Philippines as the Paracels), along with creating a city administration for the island which has heretofore had few permanent inhabitants, is escalating tensions in the South China Sea (or, as Manila has it, the West Philippine Sea)—the key theater in Washington's new cold war with Beijing. On Aug. 4, Beijing summoned a senior US diplomat, the embassy's deputy chief of mission Robert Wang, over State Department criticism of the move. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement the day before that the US is "concerned by the increase in tensions in the West Philippine Sea and [we] are monitoring the situation closely."

Luo Baoming, party chief of Hainan province, gave a keynote speech inaugurating the new "city" of Sansha that was established to administer the Xisha, Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) and Nansha (Spratly) islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea. "The provincial government will be devoted to turning the city into an important base to safeguard China's sovereignty and serve marine resource development," he said. Parts of these territories are variously claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. (IDSA, Aug. 7; AFP, Aug. 5; China Daily, July 25)

An Aug. 9 commentary in China Daily portrayed these claims as a recent invention, especially in the case of Vietnam:

For ages, China has explored and tapped the entire aforementioned areas in the South China Sea and successive Chinese governments have ruled over various parts of the islands and waters for more than 10 centuries. It is on this basis that the Chinese government officially reiterated its sovereignty over the islands and waters, along with Dongsha Islands, in the 20th century.

This met with no international objection until a couple of decades ago. The Philippines had limited its westernmost territory east of Huangyan Island, the easternmost island of China's Zhongsha Islands. Till the 1970s, Hanoi agreed repeatedly and officially, in various written and verbal forms, with China on Chinese sovereignty over Nansha and Xisha islands.

It was only after the 1970s and after Vietnam was united that it started to negate its previous statements. Similarly, it was in the past decade that the Philippines started expanding its territorial claim to the Huangyan Island.

There may be disputes on sovereignty over the overlapping waters off the continental shelf between a country or countries ringing the South China Sea. However, there was no dispute between them and China over the islands and islets in the South China Sea until the 1970s.

And indeed there is an irony here. Of course back in the '60s, when Hanoi needed China's aid in the war against the Americans, it wasn't going to make a big deal over claims to the South China Sea. After the war, fear of being reduced to Chinese suzerainty prompted Hanoi to line up with Moscow in the Sino-Soviet split, and such claims became politically permissible. Today, Hanoi's fear of China remains but the reduced Russians are no longer a significant factor in the region—while the US is beefing up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific sphere. So Vietnam is naturally if paradoxically tilting to the US.

Vietnam's old rivalry with Cambodia—which saw what was then called "Democratic Kampuchea" under the Khmer Rouge lining up with Beijing in the Sino-Soviet split, Vietnam invading to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1978, followed by a Chinese punitive invasion of Vietnam—seems to have survived into the post-communist era. From the International Boundaries Research Unit, July 19:

Discussions over territorial claims in the South China Sea were at the forefront of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia last week. The members of the 10-nation bloc intended to develop a diplomatic statement regarding China's claims and presence in the maritime region, however this did not eventuate. While China is not a member of ASEAN, it was reported that other member nations believed China, which was present at the meeting, had placed pressure on Cambodia to block the issuing of the statement. 

India's Institue for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA, linked to New Delhi's Defense Ministry) sees a resource grab as the agenda behind China's move, exploiting terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):

As per Article 121 of UNCLOS which covers island regimes, an island would have to sustain human habitation or economic life in order to have an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. While the limited land mass of Yongxing may not be able to sustain any such activity, the proximity of rich fishing grounds and potential oil fields would prompt China to stake a claim for the island’s maritime zones as per article 121. These maritime zones also include a territorial sea and contiguous zone. The mathematics are interesting as the land mass of around 13 square kilometres would accord jurisdiction over 2 million square kilometres of waters. This would push the 200 nautical mile limit of China’s EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] outwards.

And, of course, disputed hydrocarbon fields are at issue in the dispute now similarly heating up between China and Japan over the East China Sea