South China Sea: Washington Needs to Hear about Beijing's Claims

South China Sea:Washington Needs to Hear About Beijing's Claims

By Philip Bowring

WASHINGTON: U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, now in China, should have one question at the top of his Beijing agenda: What are China's claims regarding the South China Sea? Cozy belief by the United States and some Asian neighbors that "engagement" with China will, by definition, enhance regional security sounds nice, but it is a notion based partly on a yawning information gap.

In the emerging world order, the South China Sea is becoming as strategically important as the Mediterranean. Yet no one, and that includes the U.S. government, knows the full nature and extent of China's claims.

Whatever its ultimate objectives, China's imprecision on this matter has kept America on the sidelines and deflected the possibility of a common stand by other states against China's more extreme claims. It has also obfuscated the relationship between its claim to the tiny islets and reefs known as the Spratlys, its claims to oil under the sea floor and its claims to the sea itself.

Take the most fundamental issue. China long ago issued a map outlining its claim to the sea as "historic waters." A U-shaped area delineated by a dotted line gives it the whole sea up to a line ranging roughly 15 to 200 nautical miles from the coasts of the others.

Yet the United States "doesn't believe a claim has been made." That, at least, was the answer of one official expert when asked why the United States has not included China's apparent claims in its extensive catalogue of "extreme" maritime claims.

But China has yet to define what it means by "historic waters," which has no basis in the 1982 UN Law of the Sea convention, signed by Beijing.

According to one Chinese authority, Pan Shiying, speaking at a recent South China Sea conference in Washington, China does not regard the sea as "internal waters." But what does it claim within that famous line?

The issue is crucial. While other nations claim some of the tiny islands and use them as baselines for claims to territorial waters and seabed, China has this additional "historic" claim to the waters at large.

China has spelled out its land and territorial water claims. Its national law on the subject goes beyond what is permissible under the Law of the Sea, claiming the right to control passage of warships through its territorial sea and contiguous waters.

At least the land claims can be addressed in the same terms as used by other countries. Their application, if not sovereignty itself, can be subjected to the Law of the Sea. But the maritime claim is of a different order.

This question could involve yet another country finding itself in conflict with China - Indonesia. Indonesia has no claims to the Spratlys, but the area delineated by the Chinese line includes the huge gas field discovered by Exxon off Indonesia's Natuna Islands. This is one of the largest hydrocarbon finds so far in the South China Sea. It will cost $20 billion to develop.

According to Pan Shiying, the line, roughly equidistant between China's Spratly claims and the coasts of the other nations, could be regarded with "a certain flexibility." However, the lack of clarity leaves open the possibility that China will at some point seek to make a claim on Indonesian as well as Malaysian, Philippine and Vietnamese exploitation of oil and gas within the line.

China awarded oil rights in a large block that lies off southern Vietnam and near Malaysian waters to Crestone, a U.S. company, on the basis of proximity to one Spratly island.

But it has criticized Vietnamese exploitation of a field that lies much closer to Vietnam than to any Spratly, but which is within the Chinese line boundary.

The United States, for its part, lacks a policy other than to say that it does not take sides in disputes over sovereignty. It is thus impossible to determine China's long-term intent.

Is it to maneuver for position before agreeing to a partition of the sea, linked to joint development of resources? Or is it to play for time, discouraging others, particularly Vietnam, from exploiting oil off their coasts, while building up its naval forces and watching the U.S. presence decline?

Through the ASEAN Regional Forum, the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations have focused attention on the issue. But ASEAN is divided on what to do. Thailand has little direct interest. Some other members do not want to give the impression of ganging up on China, which insists on dealing with the issues bilaterally.

Malaysia is trying to engage China in dialogue rather than take a common stand with Vietnam and the Philippines (although it is increasing military contacts with those two). Chances of a joint ASEAN stand might be strengthened if Vietnam joined the group, as it wants to do.

Amid all this confusion, America's friends in the region are unclear what role they want the United States to play. They want a continued U.S. presence, to prevent anyone else from establishing hegemony and to deter adventurism. Yet they are equivocal about a direct U.S. role, either because they doubt America's commitment, fear Chinese wrath or harbor resentment against outside powers enforcing local law.

Thus, if the U.S. 7th Fleet intends to stay in the South China Sea into the next century, the United States needs clearer objectives. But first the United States will need to press Beijing to clarify its claims. Washington cannot ignore the question. In addition to U.S. commitments to ensure freedom of navigation in the region - in possible conflict with apparent Chinese policies - serious problems could arise from U.S. oil companies drilling in disputed waters.

Unless the United States is prepared to ask hard questions about Chinese claims, it cannot answer the central question: What role, if any, does the 7th Fleet have in the South China Sea?

International Herald Tribune
18 October 1994

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