South China Sea imbroglio: Setting The Record Straight
Gautam Sen

China is a signatory to United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) but not the US. The South China Sea (SCS) covers an area of nearly four million square kilometers. It is estimated that US $5 trillion worth of sea borne trade and one-third of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the SCS every year. It is one of the most important trade routes in the world. It has an enormous energy and marine life resource potential. It is estimated to have a deposit of 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. An estimated 12 per cent of the global fisheries catch is available in the SCS area. The Chinese Communist Power in Beijing claims over SCS is represented by a map of 1947 vintage called the nine-dash line. Presently, the disputed claims by various countries in the South China Sea are given below.

China is now accused of building 3200 acres of territory in the South China Sea through reclamation and island building efforts. The ruling by the Arbitration panel relates as of now to the Philippines–China dispute, but will allow similar claims by others in the region in the form of overlapping claims. Therefore it has created a substantial amount of pressure on China to seek a negotiated settlement to resolve the SCS embroglio.

As reported by various analysts in the media that “Any other course will be damaging to China’s international standing. China believes that the increased US presence in the Asia-Pacific region — now institutionalized under the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, launched in 2012 — is meant to contain China’s rise. Many analysts believe that tensions in the South China Sea would be easier to resolve if the US prioritized regional cooperation over individual security partnerships. The United States’ active diplomacy encourages Japan, India and, to a certain extent, Australia to participate in ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the South China Sea.” China’s reaction to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s has resulted in the form of a WHITE PAPER ON SOUTH CHINA SEA released on 13 July 2016, by the Information Office of the State Council of the Peoples Republic Of China. This WHITE Paper of 13,375 words has 143 paragraphs. The Introduction has seven paragraphs, which sets the tone of China’s Position and has been reproduced below. Other Five Headings are added to show the extent of the clarity demonstrated by China while composing the policy document as given below:

Summary Of China’s White Paper On SCS


  1. Situated to the south of China's mainland, and connected by narrow straits and waterways with the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west, the South China Sea is a semi-closed sea extending from northeast to southwest. To its north are the mainland and Taiwan Dao of China, to its south Kalimantan Island and Sumatra Island, to its east the Philippine Islands, and to its west the Indo-China Peninsula and the Malay Peninsula.
  2. China's Nanhai Zhudao (the South China Sea Islands) consist of Dongsha Qundao (the Dongsha Islands), Xisha Qundao (the Xisha Islands), Zhongsha Qundao (the Zhongsha Islands) and Nansha Qundao (the Nansha Islands). These Islands include, among others, islands, reefs, shoals and cays of various numbers and sizes. Nansha Qundao is the largest in terms of both the number of islands and reefs and the geographical area.
  3. The activities of the Chinese people in the South China Sea date back to over 2,000 years ago. China is the first to have discovered, named, and explored and exploited Nanhai Zhudao and relevant waters, and the first to have continuously, peacefully and effectively exercised sovereignty and jurisdiction over them. China's sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao and relevant rights and interests in the South China Sea have been established in the long course of history, and are solidly grounded in history and law.
  4. As neighbors facing each other across the sea, China and the Philippines have closely engaged in exchanges, and the two peoples have enjoyed friendship over generations. There had been no territorial or maritime delimitation disputes between the two states until the 1970s when the Philippines started to invade and illegally occupy some islands and reefs of China's Nansha Qundao, creating a territorial issue with China over these islands and reefs. In addition, with the development of the international law of the sea, a maritime delimitation dispute also arose between the two states regarding certain maritime areas of the South China Sea.
  5. China and the Philippines have not yet had any negotiation designed to settle their relevant disputes in the South China Sea. However, the two countries did hold multiple rounds of consultations on the proper management of disputes at sea and reached consensus on resolving through negotiation and consultation the relevant disputes, which has been repeatedly reaffirmed in a number of bilateral documents. The two countries have also made solemn commitment to settling relevant disputes through negotiation and consultation in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) that China and the ASEAN Member States jointly signed.
  6. In January 2013, the then government of the Republic of the Philippines turned its back on the above-mentioned consensus and commitment, and unilaterally initiated the South China Sea arbitration. The Philippines deliberately mischaracterized and packaged the territorial issue which is not subject to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the maritime delimitation dispute which has been excluded from the UNCLOS dispute settlement procedures by China's 2006 optional exceptions declaration pursuant to Article 298 of UNCLOS. This act is a wanton abuse of the UNCLOS dispute settlement procedures. In doing so, the Philippines attempts to deny China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.
  7. This paper aims to clarify the facts and tell the truth behind the relevant disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, and to reaffirm China's consistent position and policy on the South China Sea issue, in order to get to the root of the issue and set the record straight.

Remaining Five Sections

  1. Nanhai Zhudao Are China's Inherent Territory Para 8 – 54.
  2. Origin of the Relevant Disputes Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Para 55 – 72
  3. China and the Philippines Have Reached Consensus on Settling Their Relevant Disputes in the South China Sea, Para 73 – 91.
  4. The Philippines Has Repeatedly Taken Moves that Complicate the relevant Disputes Para 92 – 119.
  5. China's Policy on the South China Sea Issue, Para 121 – 143. The Important aspects are appended below:
  1. China is an important force for maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. It abides by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and is committed to upholding and promoting international rule of law. It respects and acts in accordance with international law….. China endeavors to achieve win-win outcomes through mutually beneficial cooperation, and is committed to making the South China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.
  2. China urges countries outside this region to respect the efforts in this regard by countries in the region and to play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.
  3. China is firm in upholding its sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao and their surrounding waters. Some countries have made illegal territorial claims over and occupied by force some islands and reefs of Nansha Qundao….. They are null and void. China consistently and resolutely opposes such actions and demands that relevant states stop their violation of China's territory.
  4. It is universally recognized that land territorial issues are not regulated by UNCLOS. Thus, the territorial issue in Nansha Qundao is not subject to UNCLOS.
  5. China maintains that the issue of maritime delimitation in the South China Sea should be settled equitably through negotiation with countries directly concerned.
  6. When ratifying UNCLOS in 1996, China stated that, "The People's Republic of China will effect, through consultations, the delimitation of the boundary of the maritime jurisdiction with the States with coasts opposite or adjacent to China respectively on the basis of international law and in accordance with the principle of equitability."
  7. China does not accept any unilateral action attempting to enforce maritime claims against China. Nor does China recognize any action that may jeopardize its maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.
  8. On issues concerning territory and maritime delimitation, China does not accept any means of dispute settlement imposed on it, nor does it accept any recourse to third-party settlement.
  9. China is always dedicated to working with ASEAN Member States to fully and effectively implements the DOC and actively promotes practical maritime cooperation. China is committed to upholding the freedom of navigation and over flight enjoyed by all states under international law, and ensuring the safety of sea lanes of communication… The freedom of navigation and over flight enjoyed by all states in the South China Sea under international law has never been a problem.
  10. China maintains that peace and stability in the South China Sea should be jointly upheld by China and ASEAN Member States. The South China Sea is a bridge of communication and a bond of peace, friendship, cooperation and development between China and its neighbors. Peace and stability in the South China Sea is vital to the security, development and prosperity of the countries and the well-being of the people in the region. To realize peace, stability, prosperity and development in the South China Sea region is the shared aspiration and responsibility of China and ASEAN Member States, and serves the common interests of all countries.
  11. China will continue to make unremitting efforts to achieve this goal

China’s Diplomatic Endeavours

China’s diplomatic endeavors to neutralize and ensure that the International Arbitration verdict against her in which the court upheld nearly all of the 15 points on which the Philippines approached the Court, has been relentless. China boycotted the proceedings, questioning the Court’s jurisdiction and publicly claiming historic rights to the South China Sea and its resources. She produced and made public a comprehensive WHITE PAPER on SCS on 13 July 2016, which has been discussed above. China followed up with the single-minded aim and objectives to ensure that the JOINT STATEMENT OF THE FOREIGN MINISTERS OF ASEAN MEMBER STATES AND CHINA issued after meeting in Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, on 25 July 2016, did not name China. The concluding section of the Joint Statement stated:

“RECALLING the Joint Statement of the 15th ASEAN-China Summit on the 10th Anniversary of the DOC adopted in 2012;

HEREBY state the following:

  1. The Parties reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and over flight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.
  2. The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS”.

One has to accept that China has had a resounding success in this diplomatic matter. It goes to the credit of China’s aggressive diplomacy to safeguard her national interest.

China’s Strategic Postures

Earlier on 14 July 2016, commenting on the Arbitration verdict the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated, “the award is invalid and has no binding force. China does not accept or recognize it.” Later the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister reiterated China’s proclaimed right to declare an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. Whether or not China will implement an ADIZ, he said, depends upon the level of threat China faces.

To further her strategic rationale China has embarked in a multi pronged way. She has succeeded to an extent that in a way that even the US refrained from any qualitative move to change the balance of power scenario in the SCS. Though the US carried out her navigational freedom of even sailing her carrier group through the SCS, yet she had to dispatch her top naval commander to China on 27 July when China initiated massive military drills in SCS, declared the entire area as no entry zone to the rest of the world during the duration of the military exercise, announced joint military exercises with Russia, to be conducted in September 2017 and has already carried out extensive missile firing exercises. China has already issued advisory to all foreigners to refrain from entering the SCS without permission and has warned that such entry will carry imprisonment up to two years on being apprehended.

So far, as a sequel to Chinese enunciation of her strategic interests in SCS and East China Sea, Japan is the only country, which has issued a WHITE PAPER enunciating her strategic posture. This WHITE Paper is 484 pages long approved by the Japanese Cabinet on 2 August 2016 and in brief enunciates the following key points:

  1. North Korea: The report notes that Pyongyang may have achieved the capability to miniaturize atomic weapons for warheads, as well as acquired a missile capable of reaching as far as 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). "North Korea's military activity has increased tensions on the Korean peninsula, and become a grave and imminent threat not only to Japan but also to the security in the region and the international society."
  2. China: Rapidly expanding and assertive maritime and air activity and a lack of transparency in China's military buildup have destabilized the military balance in the region. Some of China's moves over conflicting maritime claims are "dangerous actions that could trigger unanticipated situations. ... They raise strong concern about what may happen in the future."
  3. South China Sea: China's land reclamation and construction in the South China Sea are a provocation. China has been pushing to use the reclaimed islands for military purposes, while continuing to expand toward the Indian Ocean. Beijing should accept a recent international arbitration ruling aimed at settling its maritime disputes with the Philippines.
  4. East China Sea: China has stepped up activity around Japanese-controlled islands that both claim, the report says, noting that a Chinese warship entered water just outside Japanese-claimed waters in the area. Increasing activity in the East China Sea also prompted Japan to scramble against Chinese warplanes more than 570 times last year. Japan calls the disputed islands the Senkaku, while China calls them the Diaoyu.

Media Strategy

At the Media level world wide Chinese diplomats and their Military attaches in Pakistan, India and other nations forming the sub continental levels addressed the press conferences, visited the think tanks in the region to put across the Chinese view point viewpoints without any ambiguity, even using strong languages some time undiplomatic, leaving no doubt in the mind of the listeners that China aimed to see the SCS issue as they saw it fit to be seen from their view point and the truth was as they saw it. China is very subtly hinting to the world that wherever their national interest is involved they will take actions at political, economic and strategic levels which is convenient to them even if the global view points based on legal, political or moral preconditions are unable to accommodate.

On 30 July 2016, onwards China has started carrying out a media advertisement every ten minutes a video broadcast to promote “China’s historical role and standing in the South China Sea” on the Chinese state news agency Xinhua’s mega screen at the Northern end of the Times Square at the intersection between 47th St., 7th Avenue and Broadway, and visible from afar. The screen normally shows commercial videos of scenic spots in China or the excellence of Chinese political and economic initiatives like the mega infrastructure plan to connect half the world in One Road, One Belt - all part of a China’s massive plan to control the new narrative of the Middle Kingdom, both domestically and abroad. It is said to cost China $200,000-300,000 per month © Mette Holm. There is no record of any country before China who has ever attempted such a media based coverage of ones national interest.

Emerging Subcontinental System

It is interesting to note that China is deliberately and consciously involved in creating a subcontinental system in which a state’s broad external orientation rests on its systemic position. As Mandelbaum (1988) postulates that strong states tend to expand in order to maximize security. Weak states submit to strong ones if they have no options: otherwise they tend to safeguard their security by distancing themselves from strong states or by allying with other states. The neo realistic system theory explains the international system to consist of “process” and “structure” and explains the behavior of the states within a “power-interest” matrix. Therefore as Basrur informs us “the concept of the “intensity of interaction” provides the dynamism to act since intensity is the property of the system rather than of is member states”.

China today has rested its orientation to foreign and strategic policy making by creating a sub continental system in which ASEAN and China are the independent variable to the SCS as the dependent variable. The weak states that comprise the whole membership of the ASEAN have thus succumbed to the stronger state called China and others like India, which is in-between strong and weak nomenclature, have very prudently tended to safeguard their own security interests by distancing themselves from the evolving subcontinental system whose epicenter is the SCS. Whether the initial success of China to create and muster the subcontinental system comprising of the SCS, especially after its true potentials of energy and other natural resources becomes an area of interests to the rest of the world, is a matter which only history will prove.


There is no doubt that presently China has emerged as a major power with a distinct political will to be a major player in world politics. She has demonstrated by her strategic actions and diplomatic skills to make an impact on major powers and their alliance partners. For the time being she has control over the limited subcontinental system.

Published Date: 5th August 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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