Concerns are growing across Asia and in Washington that Beijing is intent on pushing its presence in the energy-rich and disputed South China Sea while other claimants are focused on tackling coronavirus .
There has been a marked increase in the number of incidents between China and it neighbours recently, and last week Beijing announced plans to formally name and administer swathes of the sea region.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told the foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations on Thursday that China was taking advantage of the fact that the world was preoccupied with the pandemic to expand its reach in the South China Sea. "Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction," he said.
Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) in Washington, said China's moves were "just the latest steps in a long-term pressure campaign", adding that China had been behaving aggressively towards its maritime neighbours for some time.
“It is just more shocking to see it now when its neighbours are struggling with a pandemic for which China is partially responsible.”
Beijing lays sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea within its much-disputed U-shaped “nine-dash line” that covers a 2.25 million square kilometre area and stretches nearly 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching the shores of several of its neighbours.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia among others have overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea region that handles about half of the world's commercial shipping and a third of global oil shipping.
Over the past seven years China has sought to expand its control over the region by building artificial islands around reefs and atolls and constructing facilities on them that can be used for military purposes, including runways, hangars, anti-aircraft batteries and missile defences. In this period it has created 3,200 acres of new land in the Spratly islands region alone, according to Amti.
In 2016, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague came to the unanimous conclusion that China’s “nine-dash line” had no basis in international law, and that its man-made islands, industrial-scale fishing and oil exploration in the disputed areas were illegal. China refused to participate in the arbitration.
The US, which does not lay claim to any part of the South China Sea, accuses Beijing of militarising international waters. Washington conducts regular “freedom of navigation” operations near disputed areas that it says are designed to challenge China’s claims and keep the international shipping lines open.
The Chinese and US navies occasionally sail perilously close to each other in these maritime confrontations, as in September 2018 when a Chinese military vessel approached an American destroyer and came within 40m of its port side. Footage showed the Chinese crew preparing buoys to absorb impact to try to protect their ship’s hull. Impact was narrowly avoided in that instance, but analysts have been warning that a loss of life is inevitable if the naval “game of chicken” continues.
Earlier this month a Chinese surveillance vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat that China said had been fishing illegally near the disputed Paracel islands. The incident was reminiscent of the ramming of a Filipino boat last year by a Chinese vessel that left 22 fishermen stranded at sea for hours before being rescued by a passing Vietnamese ship.
In response to the recent sinking, the US state department issued a statement condemning the incident and calling on China “to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea”.
The US also strongly criticised China's "bullying behaviour" last week after a Chinese government survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, was first spotted off Vietnam and then started tagging an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia's state oil company Petronas. The Malaysian ship was flanked by more than 10 Chinese vessels at one point in an attempt to intimidate the crew and encourage it to cease oil exploration work.
A few days after the Chinese vessel started following the Malaysian ship, three US warships and an Australian frigate sailed into the area and conducted joint exercises in the vicinity.
Last year the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escort vessels were involved in a four-month standoff around the Vanguard Bank, aimed at driving a Russian oil exploration vessel out of Vietnamese coastal waters.
"The United States is concerned by reports of China's repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states," the state department said last week. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said in response that the ship was conducting normal activities, and the US was purely intent on smearing China.
Further ratcheting up regional tensions, China announced last week that its state council had approved new administrative districts under the control of Sansha city in Hainan to govern areas around the Spratley and Paracel islands, as well as the Macclesfield Bank, in a move Beijing said would "reaffirm China's sovereignty in the region".
Chinese authorities also released its own formal names for 25 islands and reefs, as well as 55 “underseas geographic entities” in the South China Sea.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the recent moves were consistent with China's ongoing efforts to strengthen its administrative control over the disputed maritime areas.
“Creating domestic laws and new administrative zones, militarising land features, bolstering its paramilitary forces, applying economic carrots and sticks, etc. China’s toolbox to control activities in the South China Sea continues to expand,” she said.
With regard to the specific timing for initiatives, she said it was possible that steps taken in recent months by other claimants precipitated a response.
Listing some examples, she noted that Vietnam recently sent a protest note to the UN; in December, Malaysia notified the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf about plans to extend its rights in the South China Sea beyond 370km s from its baselines; Vietnamese fishing boats continue to operate in the Paracels; and Malaysia has been searching for oil in waters that China considers its own.
“Beijing likely has a series of potential steps in its back pocket that it may take to remind its neighbours that they need to tread carefully,” she said.
In response to questions about the competing claims, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said last week that China had "historic rights" in the region, and maintained "sovereignty and jurisdiction over the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS]."
China would take all necessary measures to safeguard its territory, Geng Shuang said, and “any country that attempts to deny China’s sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea in any form, and to reinforce their illegal claims, is doomed to fail”.
Michael C Davis, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said that "China has long understood that international law is basically a contested space and if they put forth a very questionable position long and often enough they have the chance to make it so".
Beijing was clearly attempting to perfect its claim to uninhabited features “under a notion of historical title, which appears to be mostly a fiction, in direct conflict with the facts and the claims of adjoining states”.
He said under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea there are maritime “exclusive economic zones” of up to 200 nautical miles, but most of these features were well beyond that distance from any Chinese territory, and man-made features did not qualify as islands.
“China has no legal leg to stand on in claiming these islands. It is just speaking power to truth, on the theory that nobody will be in a position to challenge it, that the exercise of power will prevail.”
Do not exist
Bill Hayton, author of the book The South China Sea and Vietnam, said that many of the islands that China has historically been trying to claim as its territory do not actually exist because Chinese geographers didn't understand western maps they copied in the 1930s when they were attempting to define their maritime jurisdiction.
What are now listed as the Zhongsha islands on a Chinese map, for instance, is actually an area of shallow sea known in English as the Macclesfield Bank, he said.
“So, the Zhongsha was completely invented. Nonetheless, China is locked into the idiotic position of claiming a group of islands that don’t actually exist. This tells us much of what we need to know about the haphazard way that its claim in the South China Sea was developed,” he wrote on Twitter recently, in response to Beijing’s move to declare a new administrative district.
“The correct response is either to laugh at China for maintaining this ridiculous territorial claim or be concerned that China is attempting to rewrite international law and claim bits of underwater seabed hundreds of miles from its shores.”