The rest of the claimants might not like it, but the way things have shaped up so far this year, China will likely continue pushing the envelope in the South China Sea because Beijing prioritizes the controversial territory as a must-have in terms of its long-term national security strategy.

China vs. U.S. South China Sea
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The United States on the other hand, despite proclaiming its commitment to maritime freedom of navigation on international waters, will only respond to Chinese actions in a limited manner, thanks to China’s nuclear capabilities and Washington’s fear of escalating to situation to an all-out war. On the other hand, Japan, in spite of its concerns, won’t have a lot of say on the issue as Beijing will continue lobbying Washington to keep Japan out of the equation.

Beijing and Washington have been at each other’s throats for months, fighting a rhetorical war over Chinese territorial claims and island buildings in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Moreover, China’s Foreign Ministry has chosen not to mince words when it comes to warning the U.S. military about taking any measures that could exacerbate tensions in the area by sailing naval vessels or flying aircraft near Chinese-held islands, most of which are located in waters that are being claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

However, the U.S. has chosen not to sit idly by, with the Pentagon countering Chinese activity by stating that its ships and aircraft will travel along all the routes international law allows them to. Moreover, it has also informed regional allies that it will start conducting routine patrols near the Chinese installations soon.

Understanding the element of water in Asian politics

Unlike Europe, water is the organizing element of the continent in Asia. The dispute between two Pacific powers has a lot of significance in Asia. Ownership of anything from an island to a reef or even a rock is more than just a question of sentimentality and is a cornerstone of many national policy strategies. Having the right to patrol, build bases and regulate trade through waterways means that a country has direct access to resources critical to that country’s economic needs and political stability.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see that both Beijing and Washington’s perspectives on the South China Sea are divergent. China believes the dispute essentially to be a question of its sovereignty, while the United States has taken a posture that for now, has everything to do with freedom of navigation.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union following the end of the Cold War, the United States had always been the preeminent power in the Pacific Rim and was constantly assisted by its allies, Japan and South Korea. However, very slowly, without making much noise, China emerged as a potential regional hegemony, which is why the dispute over the South China Sea has now become harder to ignore. The issue was always there but came to the forefront only after China had progressed to a certain degree.

For decades, U.S. national strategy has revolved around maintaining its global superiority at sea. Following the end of World War II, the U.S. had increased its naval fleets and expanded its presence to all corners of the globe and, except for a little competition from Soviet Union, no other country could match it. Controlling all major sea routes meant that the United States was able to guarantee secure movement of its goods and deploy its military power worldwide. Through this, the U.S. has been able to preserve its global economic activity while also making sure that any threat to its national security is taken care of well before it reaches its border.

Need for China to have a presence in South China Sea

Now China’s emerging regional needs have created a conflict that has already started affecting the U.S. global imperative and its hegemony in the Pacific region. From a self-sufficient behemoth, China has evolved into a major exporter, which has forced Beijing to reassess its maritime risk, vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Without being able to secure the maritime routes it needs in order to maintain trade and cater to the needs of its industrial machinery, China will not be able to protect its economy for long, which is why Beijing’s stance on the South China Sea makes a lot of sense.

For the sake of its economy, the South China Sea is a critical waterway for China. Coupled with the diverse flora and fauna and subsea resources such as natural gas, China cannot ignore the importance of the disputed waters. For this reason, Beijing has invested a lot of time, energy and money for the building, training and deployment of a stronger navy while also making sure that the region acts as a buffer along its original coastline.

This assertive ownership and control over the sea apart from its claimed exclusive economic zone gives Beijing a great sense of security. Moreover, with neighboring claimants unable to directly challenge China’s actions in the South China Sea, the United States is also not sure if using force will actually halt Chinese expansion.

In order to pursue their respective foreign policy agendas, both the United States and China have chosen to look for a different interpretation of maritime law. The detailed intricacies of landforms have become an essential part of the political discourse. Four geographic terms are at serious play: island, rock, low tide elevation and artificial island. In order to understand the complex case of this conflict, it is imperative to understand the ambiguity of each of these terms.

Interpreting the international law of the seas

International law defines an island as a naturally formed elevation that is always above the high-tide level and is habitable and/or capable of sustaining economic activity. A rock, on the other hand, is formed naturally and is above the water’s surface but does not necessarily have to be suitable for habitation or economic exploitation. A low tide elevation can be covered by water during high tides but is exposed during low tides. An artificial island is different from an island in that it is not formed naturally. Disputes are always going to be complicated when it comes to considering seamounts, submerged rocks and other subsea landforms.

According to international law of the seas, an island is granted 12 nautical miles of sea around it and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone which can be used to delineate a continental shelf that has implications for access to subsea resources. A rock, on the other hand, is granted a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea but no exclusive economic zone. A low tide elevation is not granted a territorial sea, but it can be used as a base point in claiming territorial waters if it lies within 12 nautical miles of land. The case with an artificial island is completely different since it is granted nothing other than a 500-meter safety zone.

Conduct within another country’s exclusive economic zone is open to interpretation. For instance, the United States claims that it is within its international legal rights for it to conduct military patrols inside these exclusive economic zones, while the Chinese consider this a hostile action which is against the international law of the seas.

According to Beijing, its structures in the South China Sea are islands and are part of sovereign Chinese territory. The United States, on the other hand, says that although it has no official stance on maritime disputes, it sees the holdings as either low tide elevations or artificial islands. This particular interpretation gives U.S. vessels the right to navigate within the 12-nautical-mile limit.

The fact that both nations have opted for completely opposite interpretations of the international law of the seas means that this is always going to be a debate in which both parties will simply continue to disagree and the blaming and accusation will go on for a long time.