China Asserts Right to Board and Search Ships in Most of South China Sea
I must confess to not following this story very closely the last few months. But this latest move by China to assert its sovereignty over a vast area in the South China Sea has alarmed other countries in the region and is a direct challenge to the US Navy's mission to maintain freedom of navigation in the world's oceans.
First, the map above, courtesy of James Fallows at The Atlantic, shows you what China is claiming as it's "territorial waters":
Fallows explains that "the red line encloses what China considers its own sovereign area; the blue shows Vietnam's claims; the purple shows those of the Philippines; the yellow is Malaysia's; and the green is from Brunei."
You get the idea just from the map why China's recent insistence on its claims has riled its neighbors through the region. For instance, Brunei is a very long way from mainland China, but China contends that its waters reach practically down to Brunei's shores.
Now let's add the detail that the faint white lines on the map show major shipping routes -- whose importance is even greater than the map suggests. Obviously lots of commerce in and out of China goes through Hong Kong and neighboring ports. But shipping lanes that have nothing directly to do with mainland China, including the export paths from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to Europe, pass through these waters toward the Indian Ocean. Half the world's oil-cargo traffic comes back the opposite way, from the Middle East, through this same route.
For months, Chinese patrol boats and other craft have scuffled with foreign vessels, mainly from the Philippines and most often over contested fishing grounds. But an assertion from officials in Hainan that they can stop and board any vessel passing through these waters is something quite different. The US Navy has had a lot of different missions over the centuries, but one of its elemental purposes has been defending freedom-of-navigation on the high seas. The Seventh Fleet is the regnant military power in this area. I am usually in the "oh calm down" camp about frictions, especially military, between China and America. But it is easy to imagine things becoming dangerous, quickly, if the new Chinese administration actually tries to carry out this order.
China is claiming it has the right to "land on, check, seize, and expel foreign ships" that enter the area illegally." What do they consider "illegal?"
The official China Daily says "illegal" activities include entering the province's waters without permission and "engaging in publicity that endangers China's national security." It says the new rules will take effect January 1.
And to add to the tensions ratcheted up by this new order, China has changed its passport to reflect their claim to almost the entire sea:
The latest front on the simmering dispute is China's new passport, which shows a map of the country including almost all of the strategically significant sea, the site of key shipping routes and possibly significant petroleum reserves.
It is also claimed wholly or in part by Vietnam and the Philippines - both of which have refused to stamp the Chinese travel documents - Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Washington described the passports as unhelpful, while Jakarta called them "counterproductive".
Further background on the dispute can be found here.
For the moment, all the US is doing is "asking questions" of China about the new policy. But whither the US Navy? Aren't they the guarantor of freedom of the seas? This excellent posting at FP Passport by Michael Austin should raise some alarms if not eyebrows:
Coming just four days after China showed the world its first launch and recovery of a fighter jet from its sole aircraft carrier, and roughly four months after Beijing upgraded a small naval outpost to become a full-fledged military garrison covering the South China Sea, this news seems both logical and stunningly reckless. Already, China's expansive claims to the island territories and waters of the South China Sea have put it at odds with its neighbors and the United States over the past several years. Yet freedom of navigation has always been seen as the one red line with China's growing military strength. Beijing can threaten Taiwan, oppress Tibet, tussle with Asian neighbors over contested island territory, and build stealth fighters and carrier-killer missiles, but interfering with the world's trade and free navigation was assumed to be the one (plausible) thing that would result in intervention by the U.S. Navy to uphold international law.
The real question, then, is whether Beijing truly intends to cross the line because it feels strong enough to get away with it, or if this is just more bluster from a regime that continually tests the resolve of nations in Asia.
What these new rules really mean is still vague, and Beijing will probably have to clarify more than it did yesterday, by stating that there was no problem "at present" with other nations freely transiting the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Washington needs to make clear in the strongest possible terms that freedom of navigation won't be interfered with under any circumstances, and that the U.S. Navy will forcibly prevent any ship from being boarded or turned around by Chinese vessels.
If Washington fails to come up with a clear policy and operational plan, and responds sluggishly if China interferes with innocent shipping, then it will lose more credibility in an Asia that is already questioning its staying power, and will undermine President Obama's promise to "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific.
Obviously, if the US Navy decided to get involved the Chinese would either be forced into a humiliating retreat or...what? China's surface fleet is growing but it is not a match for the 7th Fleet. But if they decided to make a stand, they could inflict some damage with sophisticated ship to ship and surface to sea missiles.
I don't think China is after a confrontation with the US on the high seas, but it looks inevitable that the disputed waters of the South China Sea are going to warm up considerably after the first of the year.