China’s Stake over Sea
Debasish Chaudhuri

America’s decision of changing the venue of joint military maneuver with South Korea in Japan Sea last month in the face of Chinese pressure indicates the limit of balance-of-power dynamics practiced so far by the US and China. Does the reversal of an earlier plan of conducting joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea mark the decline of US dominance and permanency of Chinese strong hold in the region? Patterns of interaction between America and China are fabulously multidimensional and symbiotic. One can argue that by avoiding confrontation with China, US has reduced greater losses in the region. Evan S. Medeiros uses the concept of ‘hedging’ in analyzing stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the role of the two important players of this region which are engaged in ‘hedging their security bets about the uncertain intensions, implicitly competitive strategies, and potentially coercive policies of the other’ while making efforts to closely cooperate in the areas of economy. Medeiros further contends that reciprocal hedging is an uncertain form of interaction, which ‘If not carefully managed, it could undermine the historical US centrality to the region, alienate US allies and security patterns, and precipitate adversarial competition between the United States and China.’

Many in America and China view the recent development in the region as a set back for the former and an assertion of the latter as a major naval power. Some reckon that by vehemently protesting entry of US nuclear warhead carrier George Washington, China has attempted to legitimize Yellow Sea as its boundary marker (界碑) and in the future it would be increasingly difficult for the US to carry out its activities here. It is obvious that growing capacity of navy and military build up along the coastline has bolstered China’s defensive posture and forced US to restrain. Following this strategic victory, Chinese media has escalated attack against American unilateralism and reminded it to adhere with the principle of mutual trust, common interest, equality and cooperation among nations. It is however noteworthy that China would try to use this opportunity to further its claim over the vast area of East China Sea and South China Sea where its stake has been constrained due to Taiwan problem, and disputes over Senkaku islands (钓鱼岛), continental shelf of East China Sea and Spratly Islands (南沙群岛) in South China Sea.

The total 18,000 km long coastline of the continental China is along Bohai, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. Besides this China claims to have an additional 14,000 km long coastline to include 5400 islands and islets distributed over 4.73 million sq km of maritime space of which 3 million sq km falls within China’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China although claims jurisdictional right over 3 million sq km maritime area, it insists that it enjoys actual control over less than half of this maritime space. According to the Chinese official media report, only 8 of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are under the actual control of the PRC, one is under the occupation of Taiwan and more than 45 are controlled by countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The problems related to Senkaku Island are the oldest and most complicated. Disputes with Japan and South Korea over continental shelf in East China Sea and Yellow Sea might be traced back to 1968 when UN survey mission reported untapped reserve of oil and natural gas under the seabed in this area. Most of these disputes over seabed resources began to take serious turn ever since China began exploring in its perceived maritime space during the last decade of 20th century.

One explanation of China’s recent assertion on its sovereign right over Yellow Sea is certain legislative and official pronouncements related to the right over adjacent islands in Philippines, Malaysia and Japan between January and March 2009. On January 28 and February 3, the two Chambers of Philippines Legislature passed bills on the incorporation of Scarborogh Shoal (黄岩岛) and some islands and reefs belonging to the Spratly Islands as well as demarcation of baseline of its territorial sea. On February 6, Japanese Prime Minister Toro Aso declared Senkaku as an intrinsic territory (固有领土) and brought it within the Japan-US Security frame. Further on March 5, Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi proclaimed sovereign right over Swallow (弹丸礁) and Ardasier reefs (光星仔礁) of the Spratly group of islands. China sees America’s direct involvement behind these developments in the South China Sea.
In response, the Chinese experts began to attack the basic premise of America’s right over international water based on Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power upon History and develop a discourse of maritime right with a Chinese character (中国特色的海权), which is claimed to be fundamentally not a military doctrine. The US Secretary of States Hillary Clinton’s comment on Chinese coercion in the Asia-Pacific regions over its maritime right in the Regional Strategic Forum last month further embittered relations between two countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi criticized America for unnecessarily intruding into the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Whether it is a breaking point of hedging strategy between the two countries or not needs to be watched closely.

Sources:
Evan S. Medeiros, “Strategic Hedging and the Future of Asia-Pacific Stability”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter 2005-6), pp. 145-67.
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