At a defense conference held in London on Monday, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai reiterated China’s claims to the entire South China Sea and proclaimed that the name of the sea implies China’s ownership of it. While the comment regarding the implication of ownership due to the name of the sea was the focus of most coverage of the event, there were several other interesting moments. These included comments made on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and comments made by a Japanese flag officer that implied that China is the primary threat to regional peace.
In response to comments made by a Japanese admiral concerning the South China Sea, Yuan stated “The South China Sea is a sea for all countries around and is a sea of peace. The South China Sea, as the name indicates… belongs to China.” Yuan’s comments were made at the Royal United Services Institute Sea Power Conference ahead of the Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEI) expo in London. Among the attendees of the conference were flag officers from the navies of the U.S., Japan, Italy, UK, France, and elsewhere.
Yuan commands the PLAN North Sea Fleet whose zone of operations do not include any disputed maritime possessions. In so much, Yuan is in a better position to make such a grandiose claim than his colleagues commanding the East and South Sea Fleets. Yuan further argued that the South China Sea has been Chinese since the Han Dynasty which ruled from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220. For the most part though, Yuan devoted his time at the conference to discussing the opportunities presented by China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Route initiative. The Maritime Silk Road is a plan by Chinese President Xi Jinping to create a series of ports along global maritime trade routes.
Problems in the South China Sea: Comments by U.S. and Japanese Officials
President of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) Command and Staff College, Vice Admiral Umio Otsuka argued that the JMSDF will work to maintain a credible deterrent capability in the South China Sea. Otsuka acknowledged the problems in the South China Sea and did claim that the actions of “a certain state actor” is destabilizing and could turn the region into “an ocean of war”. The state he implied was China. Furthermore Otsuka spoke on 17th Century jurist Hugo Grotius’s “freedom of the sea” as the basis for international trade and security and which should be abided by in the South China Sea.
Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S Pacific Command, spoke of China’s artificial island building in the South China Sea. In very clear times he said the islands are intended for military use as forward operating bases. This is especially true of Fiery Cross Reef where China is constructing a 3,000 meter long runway capable of accommodating aircraft ranging from the most modern fighters to long-range bombers.
Code of Conduct
Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the conference were the comments made by Yuan regarding the work between the U.S. and China in creating military code of conduct for aircraft encounters in the South China Sea. Yuan in speaking positively of it said, “I believe after this code of conduct is successfully passed, all the neighboring countries around this area will have good communication with each other whenever such unexpected encounters occur.” Such a code of conduct is being sought in light of increasing friction brought on by close encounters between Chinese aircraft and those of other South China Sea claimant countries.
Using the presence of China in South China Sea as a basis for claiming ownership is fairly foolish and may have just been an unintentional, poorly thought out comment by Admiral Yuan. By his reasoning the Indian Ocean should then belong to India, a position which China recently vocally opposed. The name itself is meaningless; the historical claims are what truly matter and even Yuan’s contention that China’s claim dates back to the Han Dynasty is debatable. While this somewhat flippant remark has attracted the most media attention, perhaps more important were the insinuations made by Admiral Otsuka of the threat posed by China two seats away from the commander of the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet.