Category: South China Sea

Overlapping Claims and Major Powers

Yesterday, the head of PetroVietnam, Vietnam’s state-owned oil company, gave a briefing in response to CNOOC’s announcement of new blocks in the South China Sea.

The briefing included a map, shown below, which indicates the extent to which China’s blocks overlap with Vietnam’s.  It also shows which foreign oil companies are targeted by CNOOC’s announcement — Gazprom, ONGC, and ExxonMobil.

In other words, China is challenging three major powers with interests in the region — Russia, India and the United States.

China wants to avoid internationalizing the dispute, but CNOOC’s act is sure to achieve the opposite result by clearly engaging the interests of other powers.

The South China Sea Oil Card

Over the weekend, the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) quietly announced that nine new blocks in the South China Sea were now open to foreign oil companies for exploration and development.  This move reflects one of the starkest efforts by China to assert its maritime rights in these disputed waters – and constitutes a direct challenge to Vietnam’s own claims.

Unlike the blocks that CNOOC offered in2010 and 2011, the new ones are located entirely within disputed waters in the South China Sea.  As this map shows, the new blocks lie off Vietnam’s central coast and comprise of more than 160,000 square kilometers. The western edge of some blocks appear to be less than 80 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast, well within that country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. All the blocks overlap at least partially with PetroVietnam’s, including potentially ones where foreign oil companies have ongoing exploration activities.

Foreign companies may be unlikely to cooperate with CNOOC to pursue investments in disputed blocks. Nevertheless, CNOOC’s action is significant for several reasons.  To start, the announcement of these blocks reflects another step in China’s effort to strengthen its jurisdiction over these waters. Just last week, for example, China raised the administrative status of the Paracel and Spratly Islands from county- to prefectural-level within Hainan Province.

The delineation of exploration blocks by a Chinese state-owned oil company not only enhances China’s claimed jurisdiction but also strengthens the legal basis of China’s ongoing opposition to Vietnam’s activities in these waters. In the past, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry challenged the legality of Vietnam’s exploration and development activities by noting that they were in Chinese waters. Now, China can assert that such actions violate domestic laws related to resource development.

In addition, CNOOC’s announcement raises continued questions about coordination within China among maritime-related actors. When the blocks were announced, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cheng Guoping was in Hanoi holding talks with ASEAN on implementing the 2002 declaration on a code of conduct. Needless to say, CNOOC’s announcement undercuts efforts since last summer to pursue a more moderate approach toward managing its claims in the South China Sea. In addition, it raises doubts about Beijing’s efforts to downplay maritime disputes and improve bilateral relations with Vietnam along with the status ofthe October 2011 agreement on basic principles for resolving for maritime issues.

Also, the location of the blocks implies that China (or at least CNOOC) may interpret the nine-dashed line on Chinese maps as reflecting China’s “historic rights” in the South China Sea. Such a claim would be inconsistent with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in which maritime rights can be claimed only from land features. China has pledged repeatedly in a variety of agreements and statements to abide by UNCLOS in the dispute.

The timing of the announcement is curious.  On the one hand, China may be reacting to what it sees as renewed challenges from its principal opponents in the South China Sea disputes. The Philippines has contested vigorously China’s claim over Scarborough Shoal since April, while Vietnam just passed a new maritime law that codifies its own claims to the Paracels and Spratlys as well as maritime rights. On the other hand, CNOOC’s announcement occurs just two weeks before the annual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, increasing the region’s attention on disputes that China would prefer to handle bilaterally.

Unless foreign companies sign producing-sharing contracts with CNOOC and begin exploration activities in these blocs, CNNOC’s announcement remains more symbolic than substantive. Nevertheless, it’s likely to increase tensions and complicate efforts by all states to manage claims in the region.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat]

The PLA in the South China Sea

In early June, an article in the New York Times quoted a TV interview with Gen.Ma Xiaotian, a Deputy Chief of the General Staff in the People’s Liberation Army.  The Times, however, did not discuss the most interesting part of what he said.  The rest of the interview illuminated China’s strategy in the South China Sea, especially an emphasis on avoiding the militarization of the dispute.

As seen in the video, the interview was impromptu.  A Phoenix TV reporter was following General Ma down a hallway at a conference on cyber security in Beijing.  General Ma was speaking off the cuff, without prepared remarks.  The reporter’s question was cut from the web clip, but here’s Ma’s full response (my rough translation):

“The question you ask is very sensitive.  We have the ability to defend our waters, but at the moment we have still not prepared to use military force to go defend [our waters].  If we were to do so, it would be as a last resort.  Now we are still conducting bilateral talks, using diplomatic means and some civilian [ie, law enforcement] means to resolve the conflict.  This way is the best.”

This statement by one of China’s top generals is noteworthy for several reasons.  To start, contrary torumors that swirled in mid May, the interview suggests that Chinese forces in the Guangzhou Military Region and South Sea Fleet had not been placed on alert during the standoff over Scarborough Shoal.  An alert by definition would include preparations to use force.

In addition, Ma’s statement indicates that a broad consensus exists among top party and military leaders to emphasize diplomacy and avoid militarizing the disputes in the South China Sea.  Such a consensus was displayed when Defense Minister Liang Guanglie also underscored the importance of a diplomatic solution to the standoff in a meeting in late May with his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin.  Although PLA-affiliated media commentators such as Major General Luo Yuan have called for China to adopt a more forceful response, uniformed officers such as Ma Xiaotian and Liang Guanglie have not.

Finally, Ma’s statement highlights a central feature of China’s strategy in the South China Sea.  During the latest round of tensions, which began in around 2007 and accelerated between 2009 and 2011, China hasn’t used its naval forces to actively press its claims against other states.  Instead, China has relied on diplomacy and vessels from various civilian maritime law enforcement agencies, especially the State Oceanic Administration’s China Marine Surveillance force and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.  The emphasis on using maritime law enforcement agencies to maintain a presence in disputed areas suggests a deliberate effort to cap the potential for escalation while asserting China’s claims.

Of course, China will continue to assert its claims.  But the PLA’s support for a diplomatic approach and limiting the potential for escalation should be noted.

[This post originally appeared on The Diplomat]

Investigating the Chinese Threat

Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee — the first time that I had ever appeared before a Congressional committee.

As for the purpose of the hearing, the title says it all:  “Investigating the Chinese Threat, Part One: Military and Economic Aggression.”  Topics addressed included the military modernization, cyber espionage, and trade policies, among others.

My testimony examined China’s recent behavior in the South China Sea, a topic that I’ve been writing a lot about lately.

As a witness, I was asked to prepare and submit a written statement, of any length.  During the hearing, however, I only had five minutes to speak.  For an academic used to lecturing for 50 minutes several times a week, that is the equivalent of asking a chef to cook without salt.

The other witnesses were Dean ChengJohn Tkacik, and Larry Wortze, all, as it turns out, past or present employees of the Heritage Foundation.



All Quiet in the South China Sea (for now)

I just published a short piece on the South China Sea on the Foreign Affairs website.

In the piece, I argue that China, for now, has adopted a more moderate approach to managing its claims in this dispute.  In particular, China seeks to restore its tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active US role in the region.  China’s more moderate approach in the South China Sea provides further evidence that China will seek to avoid the type of confrontational policies that it had adopted toward the United States in 2010.

Read “All Quiet in the South China Sea: Why China is Playing Nice (For Now)

Clarification of China’s Claims in the South China Sea?

Ambiguity about the extent of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea has been a key source of concern in this dispute.  In the 1990s, China issued a series of domestic laws detailing its maritime claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, including 12 nautical mile territorial seas and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Nevertheless, Chinese maps continue to contain a “nine-dashed line” around the South China Sea. The line first appeared on an official map produced by the Republic of China in 1947.  After 1949, China continued to use the line on its official maps, but never defined what the line included or excluded.

In a recent press conference, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to take an important step towards clarifying China’s claims in the South China Sea – and suggesting what the line might not mean.

First, the spokesperson, Hong Lei, distinguished between disputes over “territorial sovereignty of the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands” and disputes over maritime demarcation. This affirms past statements, including a note to the United Nations in May 2011, that China will advance maritime claims that are consistent and compliant with UNCLOS. Under UNCLOS, states may only claim maritime rights such as an EEZ from land features like a nation’s coastline or its islands.

Second, and more importantly, the spokesperson further stated that “No country including China has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.”  By making such a statement, this phrase suggests that the “nine-dashed line” doesn’t represent a claim to maritime rights (such as historic rights), much less a claim to sovereignty over the water space enclose by the line.  More likely, the line indicates a claim to the islands, reefs and other features that lie inside.

To be sure, China could advance a large claim to maritime rights in the South China Sea from the islands and other features in the Spratly Islands. Although UNCLOS only permits states to claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ from islands that can sustain permanent human habitation, sovereignty over a single island can generate an EEZ of approximately 125,000 nautical miles.

Nevertheless, even articulation of a large but UNCLOS-compliant claim would offer several advantages in terms of dispute resolution.  It would clarify where China’s EEZ claims from islands in the South China Sea overlap with the claims of littoral states from their coastlines.  As a result, disputed and undisputed areas would be clearly identified.  It would also allow states to invoke the dispute settlement mechanisms of UNCLOS, Part XV, which would a negotiated settlement to overlapping claims.

Of course, this recent statement doesn’t represent a full and complete definition of the nine-dashed line.  Nevertheless, it does at least rule out one possible definition and provide an opportunity for other states to press China to further clarify its position.

 [This post originally appeared on The Diplomat]

China’s Strategy in the South China Sea

In this article in Contemporary Southeast Asia, I examine China’s behavior in the South China Sea disputes through the lens of its strategy for managing its claims. Since the mid-1990s, China has pursued a strategy of delaying the resolution of the dispute.

In the article, I make several arguments:

  • The goal of China’s strategy is to consolidate its claims, especially to maritime rights or jurisdiction over the South China Sea, and to deter other states from strengthening their own claims at China’s expense, including resource development projects that exclude China.
  • Since the mid-2000s, the pace of China’s efforts to consolidate its claims and deter others has increased through diplomatic, administrative and military means, especially the use of civil maritime law enforcement agencies
  • Although China’s strategy seeks to consolidate its own claims, it threatens weaker states in the dispute and is inherently destabilizing.  As a result, China’s delaying strategy in the South China Sea includes efforts to prevent the escalation of tensions while nevertheless seeking to consolidate China’s claims.
  • Chinese compromises or concessions over maritime rights and especially territorial sovereignty are unlikely, as the perceived value of controlling the islands and waters is only likely to grow. Instead, China may seek to moderate the manner in which it seeks to pursue its claims.
  • What could change China’s calculations, however, might be improved security ties between other claimants and the United States. If coupled with what China might view as increasing assertiveness by these states in the dispute, China might then view its position as weakening and be more likely to use force.

Read the article.

Maritime Security in the South China Sea

In this chapter, I explore the recent competition over maritime rights in the South China Sea.  This competition over maritime rights is related to but distinct from other components of maritime security in the region, including competing claims to territorial sovereignty over island groups, freedom of navigation and naval modernization.

I argue that despite the recent escalation of tensions between 2009 and 2011, armed conflict in the South China Sea is far from inevitable:

  • The competition over maritime rights in the South China Sea has not become militarized, nor has it reached the levels of instability that the region witnessed between 1988 and 1995.
  • Although some observers focus on China as the primary antagonist, the competition stems from an increasing willingness of all claimants, especially Vietnam, to assert and defend their claims.
  • The July 2011 agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China over guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea has created diplomatic breathing space that has been exploited to reduce tensions.
  • Cooperative initiatives could reduce future competition over maritime rights but will require political will and diplomatic creativity to move forward.

The disputes over maritime rights and territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea pose distinct challenges that the United States must navigate:

  • The United States should reaffirm its interests in the region when they may be challenged and maintain its longstanding principle of neutrality and not taking sides in the territorial disputes of other countries.
  • The United States must balance efforts to maintain stability in the South China Sea against actions that could inadvertently increase instability, especially greater involvement in the resolution of the dispute itself – an action that would be seen in the region and beyond as moving away from the principle of neutrality.
  • The United States should affirm the principles that Secretary Clinton articulated in July 2010 and apply them equally to all claimants in the South China Sea disputes, not just China.
  • The United States should not take a position on what specific modes or forums should be used to resolve or manage these disputes, so long as they are agreed upon by the claimants without coercion.
  • The United States should not offer to facilitate talks or mediate the dispute.

The chapter is part of a volume on the South China Sea, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea, published by the Center for New American Security, a research organization in Washington, DC.

Read the chapter.

China’s Maritime Assertiveness

Michael Swaine and I have just written an article for the China Leadership Monitor that examines China’s assertiveness in the Yellow, East, and South China Seas.  We assess whether, to what degree, and in what ways the PRC has become more assertive along its maritime periphery in recent years. It also assesses the external and domestic forces motivating Beijing to become more or less assertive over time and the prospects for Chinese assertiveness with regard to maritime sovereignty issues in the future.

Read the article