China and the Sea: Expansionism and Encroachment

In the wake of an international tribunal ruling that China’s claims in the South China Sea have no legal or historical basis, Jack Mountford examines what is motivating this provocative policy, and how can surrounding nations hope to respond.


A Chinese naval frigate conducting exercises in the East China Sea (Photo: ChinaFotoPress)

A Chinese naval frigate conducting exercises in the East China Sea (Photo: ChinaFotoPress)

On 9 June 2016, a Chinese vessel sailed through the contiguous waters of the contested Senkaku Islands. Known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, these barren, uninhabited landforms have been a source of tension between Japan and China since the former purchased the islands from a private owner in late 2012. Whilst this action was not in itself unlawful, it was undoubtedly highly significant.

The incident marked the first event of a Chinese military vessel entering Japan’s contiguous waters.

The incursion by the frigate sparked fury in Tokyo, with Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoning China’s ambassador in protest. China’s motivation in escalating tensions are unclear, especially at a time of strained disagreement with the United States on the principle of freedom of navigation in the region. What is clear, however, is that recent Chinese actions conform to a strategy dating back as far as the 1980s, when China attacked Vietnamese islands in the Spratly Chain. The ultimate aim of this strategy may be seen as exercising control over the vast majority of the South and East China Seas, and the copious material wealth found in this area (most notably oil, natural gas and fishing rights).

Territorial waters claimed by China in the South China Sea. (Source: UNCLOS)

Territorial waters claimed by China in the South China Sea. (Source: UNCLOS)

Chinese strategy in the region is based around small, constant and simultaneous provocations towards multiple nations. China is currently engaged in maritime disputes with no fewer than six: Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan. The widespread provocations conducted by the Chinese government seek to diminish the ability of these nations to respond, whilst also preventing a unified response towards its actions. This has been seen with the unprecedented increase in Chinese aerial incursions in the region, particularly towards Japan.

In 2008, Chinese aircraft accounted for just 13 per cent of incidents in which Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force scrambled its fighters to intercept incoming aircraft. By 2015, they accounted for 65 per cent of that total. Between April and June 2016 alone, Japan intercepted Chinese aircraft approximately 200 times. This marks a significant increase on the 114 reported incidents in the same period last year. On 5 July 2016 a confrontation between Japanese and Chinese aircraft saw the rare use of fire-control radar, further escalating tensions between the two nations. These provocations may seem foolhardy, especially given the strong treaty ties that Japan shares with the United States.

However, China has a clear aim in its maritime expansion in the region, which will come as no surprise to many: the control of mineral wealth.

A 2013 report by the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA) estimated that the extended seabed surrounding the Spratly Islands (which are disputed between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam amongst others) contains energy resources amounting to nearly 11,000 million barrels of crude oil reserves. The Chinese government has already shown a keen interest in exploiting these reserves. In May 2014, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, an oil platform operated by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, moved into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam. The appearance of the drilling platform sparked protest from Hanoi, and led to a series of large-scale protests by Vietnamese citizens against China. In what has become a near-yearly exchange between Hanoi and Beijing, the platform returned to disputed waters in April 2016, leading to further diplomatic protest on the part of Vietnam.

The consequences of these provocations are difficult to predict, although few doubt that any further escalation would have serious and likely dangerous results. Indeed, many commentators have explored the potential circumstances of any armed confrontation between China and other powers in the region, including Japan, the Philippines and the United States. Doubtless, the consequences of a conflict between several of the world’s largest economies, particularly China, the United States and Japan, would be disastrous on a global scale in both economic and political terms. In response, the United States in particular, as well as nations involved in disputes with China, have taken various steps to contain Chinese expansion.

The USS William P. Lawrence transits the South China Sea as part of a “Freedom of Navigation Operation” (Photo: CNN)

The USS William P. Lawrence transits the South China Sea as part of a “Freedom of Navigation Operation” (Photo: CNN)

The United States has taken steps to assert the right to freedom of navigation at sea through “Freedom of Navigation Operations”, undertaken by the United States Navy. On 10 May 2016, the USS William P. Lawrence sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, the site of an artificial island and military base recently constructed by China. The island, part of China’s broader land-reclamation efforts in the area, houses a 3,000-metre-long runway, and the two nations have traded accusations on the militarisation of the area.

However, critics have argued that such operations will not be effective in limiting Chinese activity, since they do not produce a united front amongst Southeast-Asian nations. Rather, it has been suggested that efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which represents various nations in the region, should be strengthened in order to produce a broader front against Chinese expansionism. Many have criticised the organisation for not providing a sufficiently multilateral approach to deter Chinese provocations, allowing these actions to go unchecked.

Individual nations, including the Philippines, have opted to launch unilateral legal challenges in an effort to prevent further expansion. On 12 July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), the oldest international institution for dispute resolution, ruled decisively against China’s claims by declaring its assertions of sovereignty as having no legal or historical basis. The ruling, made under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was immediately rejected by the Chinese government, with the Foreign Ministry describing the ruling as being “null and void” and having “no binding force.” Regardless, the support of this international institution is likely to embolden those nations at the forefront of Chinese expansion, and will provide the United States in particular with a legal justification for continued “Freedom of Navigation Operations”. Whether the consequences of the ruling will serve to increase tensions in the area is yet to be seen; Chinese statements regarding the decision have actually been somewhat conciliatory in nature, describing “consultation with the states directly concerned” and affirming respect for “freedom of navigation and over-flight” in the disputed areas.

China’s recent maritime expansion has been rapid, extensive and forceful, sparking great concern amongst surrounding nations on the Asian power’s ultimate intentions for the region. In Vietnam and elsewhere, Chinese policy has sparked a nationalist backlash and widespread protests, as well as intense diplomatic pressure on the part of neighbouring countries. However, whilst these efforts to assert control of the region, and its material wealth, have been sweeping, a single arbitration ruling by the PCA may have the potential to halt this expansion in its tracks. The global security scholar David Welch described the decision as “a breath-taking indictment of China’s position in the South China Sea”. Ultimately, China’s response to these developments may provide an indication of the manner in which it will conduct itself in international relations for years or even decades to come.

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Jack Mountford

Political Correspondent at Filibuster
Jack Mountford is an 18-year-old writer for Filibuster, currently studying History and Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is interested primarily in issues of international relations and security, focusing particularly on China and the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region. In his limited spare time, he enjoys reading, BBC documentaries and good quality Cheddar cheese.
Jack Mountford
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