South China Sea: Everything You Need to Know About Asia's Slow Brewing Showdown
The recent US B-52 flyby over contested areas of the South China Sea, in response to the recent Chinese landing of a bomber aircraft in the area, is again shining a spotlight upon the underlying roots of the territorial disputes, tensions and provocations in the South China Sea.
While lingering beneath the radar and overshadowed by other pressing international crisis, South China Sea confrontations – and the history which causes them – have not gone away but rather intensified.
For many years now, the US and its allies have challenged China’s consistently aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Just recently, Defense Secretary James Mattis condemned Chinese activities in the area, specifically citing their military maneuvers and weapons placement.
“China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island,” Mattis said in a speech at Asia’s premier security summit, called Shangri-La in Singapore. “Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion."
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One public Chines pledge came from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, who said “China will continue to have an in-depth exchange of views with the ASEAN member states on implementing the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea), promoting maritime cooperation and conducting consultations on the COC.”
Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, also challenged this after recently joining Mattis during meetings with US allies in Southeast Asia.
“The Chinese leadership has publicly pledged not to pursue militarization, yet we have seen that. We want to make sure we have a rules-based maritime order. The Chinese are not lending themselves to that effort,” Kaidanow told a group of reporters.
What are South China Sea Confrontations About?
The area is question is a group of highly disputed islands south of China in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands. The small islands in the area, some of which are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, are rich in resources and of strategic geographical importance in the Pacific region.
Over the years, Pentagon officials have widely criticized a Chinese effort to erect artificial structures nearby or on top of its claimed island territories in the Spratly Islands. Called “land reclamation” by the Pentagon, the activity has added more than 2,000 acres to island territories claimed by China.
According to a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty supported by but not yet formally joined by the U.S., 12-miles off the coast of a given territory is considered to be sovereign waters owned by the respective country.
Therefore, Freedom of Navigation exercises are when US Navy ships venture into a 12-mile vicinity of some South China Sea territories which, according to the US and its allies, are erroneously claimed by China. These exercises have, in several instances, prompted immediate condemnation from Chinese authorities. In fact, the Chinese issued a sharp rebuke following the US B-52 flight.
The ongoing “land reclamation” by China in the area appears to be a rather transparent attempt by China to reinforce and bolster extended territorial claims in the South China Sea.
However, the Law of the Sea Convention does not recognize artificial or man-made structures and legitimate island territories to be claimed. Therefore, the U.S and its Pacific allies do not support or agree with China’s aggressive territorial claims. In fact, citing the definition of islands articulated in the Law of the Sea Convention, Pentagon officials do not recognize the artificial structures as islands – but instead refer to the effort as “land reclamation.”
Under the U.N. Law of the Sea convention, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a "naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide." Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says "artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas."