An Analysis Of Chinese Strategy In The South China Sea Dispute

By Peri Pratima

The South China Sea which expands from the southern point of China, encloses an area which witnesses 40 percent of the world’s trade. The Strait of Malacca, one of the major oil channels also comes under the area. Not only trade, the sea is also rich in fishing areas and has large amount of undersea deposited contents[1]. The main dispute is among five countries, that is, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, who claim ownership. On the other hand, China demands complete ownership over the sea and signifies the same through nine dash lines in its official map.

China contends that its territorial claims in the South China Sea were assimilated with China during Manchu dynasty and even historical documents showed the territory as of China.[2] The nine dash line claimed by China, first appeared in Chinese maps when Kuomintang government drew an eleven dashed line. Later on, when the Chinese communist party came into power, they changed the line into nine dashed one.[3]

China has two sets of municipal laws which are built upon this historical justification. One set of laws[4] suggest that the area around the islands fall under Chinese territory as the islands fall under Chinese sovereignty. The other set of law[5] states that legal developments should not hinder historical rights of People’s Republic of China.[6]

The problem arises with the fact that the parts which China demands, extend to the EEZs of other countries. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) establishes EEZs so as to give more control in the hands of coastal areas, so that they can utilize the resources fewer than 200 nautical miles from their coastline. While signing UNCLOS, it was implied that China and other countries demanding South  China Sea were ready to give up the economic rights they enjoy, except to navigate around the areas and preserving this right was one of the major aims of UNCLOS.

Under South China Sea come a number of islands which are being demanded by different countries. For example, The Pratas Islands is demanded by China and Taiwan. The Paracel Islands are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and China.  But they were taken from Vietnam by force in 1974 by China.[7]

While UNCLOS does not mention anything to determine sovereignty over the disputed areas, it mentions about archipelagos and islands. It says that like the maritime zones, island owners are entitled to demand areas around their islands. Artificial island owners cannot demand areas like maritime zone but they can claim safety zone of 500m.[8]

Certain images were released showing China pumping white sand into mischief reef, an area claimed by Philippines.  Even more images were released which revealed construction in the paracel island chain. These land reclamation acts by China are making the other claimants of South China Sea concerned.  It is believed that China is elevating the territory it has into island status so that it can gain the 200 nautical mile EEZ.[9] China has even refused to take part in the legal suit brought by Philippines against it in the United Nations Tribunal on the Law of the Sea over the legality of China’s nine-dashed line, depicting that it will do whatever it takes to maintain the territory it claims. Although the act of land reclamation by China is not illegal but it is a matter of concern because it is a continuation of China’s policy to coerce weak states into getting what it wants. Right after Philippines brought the law suit against China, it banned the export of fruits to Philippines and the President Xi Jinping did not attend the 2013 Southeast Asian tour in Philippines.

If this act of land reclamation by China continues unquestioned, China will eventually take control of disputed territory in the Sea until it controls the sea entirely (a tactic referred to as “salami slicing”).[10]

The Declaration on Conduct of parties (DOC) in regards to South China Sea signed by China and other ASEAN countries in itself opposes the acts done by China.[11] The DOC states that the member states have to refrain themselves from indulging in activities that would escalate disputes, and has the duty to fulfill its obligations in good faith under International Law.[12] But the recent actions of China are against those generally recognised principles of International Law and if it continues, the destabilisation of the regions having high economic value is going to be the ultimate result.

The greatest matter of concern for U.S. and its allies is that China’s land reclamation allows it to extend the military power far away from the state.. This means that China will acquire better position to continue its territorial claims.

In 2013, the reorganization of Chinese military was announced due to which, the maritime law agencies were assimilated under on governing body. As per the plan, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) which used to control only China Marine Surveillance Branch will now control the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the Marine Anti-Smuggling Police and the Maritime Police and Border Control as well. And now, jurisdiction of new body called the State Oceanic Commission (SOC) covers SOA. This restructuring implies that the body which controls monitoring and patrolling the South China Sea, that is, the Chinese Coast Guard will be under more direct control of Central government. Consolidation of all small groups under single governing body, which in turn is under direct control of Central government, clearly implies the importance that China is placing on the matters related to South China Sea. The government’s intention to gain military control over the disputed area can easily be discovered. In addition to these, China has been increasing the size of its Military Coast Guard as 20 patrol combatants and 30 large patrol ships have been added in the last three years.[13]

Because no enforcement mechanism exists under the UNCLOS and DOC, China is able to claim the territory within the nine dashed line. Moreover China, taking advantage of its economic power, it has ensured that ASEAN and other Southeast Asian countries are not involved in this. President Obama had launched a rebalance to ramp up the American presence in a region with growing strategic importance. However this had no effect on China, instead it has prompted China to ramp up its own presence and actions in the sea.

Although China’s strategy is to consolidate its own claims, it threatens the weaker states and will be destabilising if not checked. China would be most likely to compromise only when the relations with the other claimant nation become more necessary than its own territory. Although it is highly unlikely to happen but it may happen if China seeks to prevent the formation of a coalition led by United States.

Peri Pratima is a third year student at HNLU


[1] French, Howard. “China’s Dangerous Game.” The Atlantic. October 13, 2014.

[2] Jacobs, J. Bruce. “China’s Frail Historical Claims to the South China and East China Seas.” American Enterprise Institute. June 26, 2014.

[3] Malik, Mohan. “History the Weak Link in Beijing’s Maritime Claims.” The Diplomat. April 30, 2013.

[4] Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, 1992

[5]  Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf, 1998

[6] Dutton, Peter. “Military Activities in the EEZ: A U.S.-China Dialogue on Security and International Law in the Maritime Commons.” China Maritime Studies Institute Study No. 7, Naval War College. December, 2010—Gaming/China-Maritime-Studies-Institute/Publications/documents/China-Maritime-Study-7_Military-Activities-in-the-.pdf

[7] Buszynski, Leszek. “The development of the South China Sea maritime dispute.” The South China Sea and Australia’s Regional Security Environment: National Security College Occasional Paper No. 5. September, 2013.

[8] 8“Limits in the Seas, No. 143 China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea.” Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State. December 5, 2014.

[9] Pedrozo, Raul. “Preserving Navigational Rights and Freedoms: The Right to Conduct Military Activities in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone.” Chinese Journal of International Law (2010) 9 (1): 9-29

[10] Haddick, Robert. “Salami Slicing in the South China Sea.” Foreign Policy. August 3, 2012.

[11] Hunt, Luke. “China Challenges ASEAN with Land Fills in South China Sea.” The Diplomat. March 10, 2015.

[12] Gady, Franz-Stefan. “China Slams US as ‘Kibitzer on South China Sea'” The Diplomat. March 23, 2015.

[13] Erickson, Andrew. “How U.S. Navy Intel Sees China’s Maritime Forces.” War on the Rocks. April 10, 2015.

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