Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sea row: China by default?

By Val G. Abelgas  
First-and-Second-Island-Chains.7WITH the United States focused on eliminating the growing threat of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Russian adventurism in Ukraine, and the Philippine government caught up in the maelstrom of the bloody Mamasapano carnage and corruption scandals, China quietly doubled its efforts to build new islands in the volatile South China Sea to bolster its claim over the disputed Spratly archipelago and lay the foundation for its bid to become a world naval power.
The Philippines filed another protest last Feb. 4 over the continuing Chinese land reclamation on Panganiban Reef, also known as Mischief Reef. Last year, the Philippines had also protested similar land reclamation by China on Mabini Reef, or Johnson South Reef, which is now nearly complete.
Various reports claim that China has been busy reclaiming land over at least five reefs in the disputed South China Sea. The biggest and the most noticeable project is the one on the Fiery Cross Reef, which measures 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) long and roughly 200- to 300 meters (656- to 984 feet) wide.
The US, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asean nations have expressed concern over the new developments, which they said could further escalate tension in the region. The new islands, especially the one on the Fiery Cross Reef, could house surveillance equipment, a small military base, resupply stations for Chinese government vessels, and a landing strip.
Analysts see the Chinese move as a long-term strategy to project power in the region, considering the strategic location of the disputed islands that lie right in the middle of one of, if not the busiest sealanes in the world.
Many analysts, however, believe that the land reclamation is a move aimed more at bolstering its claim over the disputed islands. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) does not include reefs and shoals. With these reefs converted into islands inhabited by the Chinese, China hopes to claim 200-mile EEZ from each of these islands, making nearly the entire mineral and fishing resources-rich South China Sea its exclusive territory.
China hopes to use these islands as a response to the Philippine argument before an international tribunal that China occupies only rocks and reefs, and not true islands that qualify for economic zones. The UNCLOS states: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” Thus, even if China were to gain control over the Spratlys, its control would be limited to the 12 nautical mile territorial waters, without an accompanying exclusive economic zone.
By creating the appearance of an island, China may be seeking to strengthen its claims, according to M. Taylor Frayel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
With all these in mind, China doesn’t seem bothered by protests lodged by the US, the Philippines and other neighboring countries. For example, when the Philippine government confronted China about its reclamation project on Mabini Reef, which has been quietly going on since 2012, the Chinese foreign ministry basically told the Philippines it’s none of your business.”
“China exercises indisputable sovereignty on the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and the adjacent waters,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said. “Any action taken by China on any island falls within China’s sovereignty and has nothing to do with the Philippines.”
When the US military told the Chinese to stop its land reclamation program in the disputed waters and to engage in diplomatic initiatives, China sent back a warning to the US that China’s developments have nothing to do with US interests.
“The U.S. is obviously biased considering that the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam have already set up military facilities,” People’s Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan said, adding that pressure from the US will not change China’s plans in the area.
“China is likely to withstand the international pressure and continue the construction, since it is completely legitimate and justifiable,” Luo said.
Judging from its increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed sea, it would seem that as far as China is concerned, nothing can stop it from further bolstering its claim to the entire South China Sea and using this claim to establish naval power in Asia and the Pacific.
Its recent moves in the disputed waters is obviously part of its grand plan of “building up a navy that can operate beyond what it calls the first island chain” islands closer to mainland Asia that include the Spratlys and Paracels “to penetrate the second island chain, which includes Guam and other territories farther east.”
This grand design is known to many of the Pacific political and military leaders, and yet, as Australian political analyst Carlyle A. Thayer said, “no one has a good response to it.”
Does the Aquino administration have a workable response to the problem? With Aquino embroiled in the problem it created in the massacre of the 44 Special Action Forces team in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, the South China Sea dispute would seem the farthest from his mind. Does it even have the time and the focus to find ways of confronting the South China Sea problem? China could win the dispute by default.

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