Recently, the news has been ablaze with growing tension in the S. China Sea. First, the U.S. held military drills with Philippines near islands Philippines disputes with China in the S. China Sea. Then Japan passed and the U.S. welcomed a new law that allows Japanese military to support U.S. air patrols and directly even carry out its own patrols in the S. China Sea. Then Japan and Philippines announced they would conduct their first military drills in the S. China Sea. And most recently, the U.S. decides to publicly challenge China’s assertion of rights on disputed islands by flying through those areas and releasing tapes of the verbal responses between the military.
There is no question among observers that the U.S. is ratcheting up the pressure on China in its assertion of sovereignty in the S. China Sea. (see e.g. some of our posts). But this latest round of military provocation is completely irresponsible.
Starting last year, the U.S. – with most notably Japan – has been calling out China as a hindrance to freedom of navigation. But I as I had noted in this piece last year, how can this be when:
China has never taken any actions or made any claims in the South China Sea that limits the freedom of passage. [China’s position of freedom of navigation in the S. China Sea] is made abundantly clear with China’s ratification of the UNCLOS in 1982 and its signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 reaffirming its “respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.” Pursuant to a deadline set by the UNCLOS [on the limits of its continental shelves] 1, on May 7, 2009, China submitted a map and a letter to the U.N. detailing the extent and bases of its “nine-dashed” claim. When Philippines officials publicly expressed concerns about freedom of passage in the South China Sea, the Chinese government promptly reaffirmed declaring, “the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is assured.”
If there is a concern about freedom of navigation arising from say China’s setting up of ADIZ last year, what about Japan’s ADIZ that is many times bigger than at of the China’s – or U.S. ADIZ that is even many more times bigger than that of Japan’s?
If there is concern that China’s claim of EEZ based on small islands reaches so far out from its main coastlines, what about Japan’s own EEZ stretching thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean, based on historically tenuous claims to small islands spread thinly across the Western Pacific?
If there is a concern of freedom of navigation through China’s maritime claims, why is there no similar concern of freedom of navigation over:
Philippines’ dubious “picture frame” claims over a vast rectangular swath in the South China Sea as its “archipelago waters” and its controversial insistence of treating this swath as its “internal waters” 1 — thus explicitly repudiating any freedom of passage, including freedom of “innocent passage, through this vast area 2?
Or for that matter why is there no concern over Indonesia’s vast expenses of “archipelagic waters”? 3
List one instance where China has impeded others’ freedom of navigation as defined in the UNCLOS (by the way, freedom of navigation does not mean freedom of one military to conduct activities in nearby seas – and right up to say the 12 nautical mile territorial limits of nations – with reckless regards for the security and economic needs of other nations under the UNCLOS).
The U.S. has recently been citing China’s reclamation project as a problem that needs to be addressed. But I am not aware of any International Law or norm that places blanket prohibitions on nations from reclaiming lands – whether they be on islands, rocks or reefs.
Japan has been doing reclamation projects for decades in the Western Pacific. Philippines and Vietnam too have been conducting numerous reclamation projects across the S. China Sea, over disputed territories to boot, for years. But why cannot China … why is its reclamation all of a sudden criminal?
The notion that a rising China in itself is a menace is child play on words – a gem of modern “double speak”. If the strength of China per se can threaten freedom of navigation, what makes the U.S. or Japan not an equal threat – I mean a much bigger threat?
The consistent hypocrisy of U.S. policy and rhetoric is not lost on other commentators (see, e.g. this piece by Peter Lee in Asia Times, or this piece by Qinduo Xu in the Conversation or this piece by Robert A. Manning in National Interest or this piece by Stuart Leavenworth in Peace and Freedom | Policy and World Ideas).
Last week, US vice president Joe Biden told graduates at the Naval Academy in Annapolis that 60% of the United States Naval force will be stationed in the Asia Pacific by 2020 and that the U.S. will be a guarantor of peace in the Asia Pacific, that while the U.S. does not take sides in “territorial disputes” of other nations, it will stand up for “freedom of navigation and peaceful” and “equitable resolution to territorial disputes.”
So now, in one breath, the U.S. moves from the murky ground of being the ultimate enforcer of “freedom of navigation” and referee on the legality of land reclamation to the even shadier grounds of being the final arbiter of “equitable resolution of territorial disputes”… – all the while still posing with a straight face saying that it is not taking sides on local squabbles….
Last month, Obama stated in a forum in Kingston, Jamica:
Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.
We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside.
But as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying later observed in a subsequent press conference, “I think everyone can see very clearly who it is in the world who is using the greatest size and muscle.” She then politely urged the United States to act constructively in the region and reconsider its own history of bullying of other countries.
I wish George Orwell were alive today to see the clip of VP Biden speaking last week, or President Obama last month … or get know Edward Snowden or Julian Assange or see American activities in the Middle East the last few decades and American public’s complicity through all this. I think Orwell would have been surprised at how prescient he was some 65 years ago about the notions of Big Brother, doublethink, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreen of early 21st century.
- Philippines ratification statement #7 (“The concept of archipelagic waters is similar to the concept of internal waters under the Constitution of the Philippines, and removes straits connecting these waters with the economic zone or high sea from the rights of foreign vessels to transit passage for international navigation.”) ↩
- See, e.g., http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/WorkingPapers/WP111.pdf, p. 17-19 (good summary of Philippines’ controversial claims) ↩
- See my paper for more on this. ↩