China’s passport move stokes South China Sea dispute | by IISS Editorial Board

12 December 2012

by IISS Editorial Board - A new row over the South China Sea has erupted following Beijing’s issue of biometric passports containing a map showing the so-called ‘nine-dashed line’ that China has used to assert its sovereignty over disputed islands. By printing the passports, and inviting other states to stamp their visas in them, Beijing is attempting to gain recognition for its claims to sovereignty.

© Getty Images

A protest in the Philippines against China’s latest attempt at ‘administrative diplomacy’, 29 November 2012.

States in contention with China over territory have not responded kindly. Vietnam and the Philippines have issued separate visa forms rather than stamping the Chinese passports. Since the map also shows Chinese dominion over territories disputed with India, the Indian government has issued visas to Chinese citizens with its own map of the Sino-Indian border embossed on them. Taiwan has also objected to the new passports, which depict it as part of the People’s Republic and feature images of Taiwanese scenic spots.

The spat has highlighted China’s recent bolstering of its tactic of ‘administrative diplomacy’ in the complex South China Sea disputes, as it seeks to exert de facto sovereignty. However, recent events have also underlined the continued intransigence of all parties to the dispute, even while work is under way to establish a code of conduct intended to bind them to resolve the dispute peacefully.

Long-running arguments
Beijing’s administrative diplomacy is the latest in a series of increasingly bold actions and reactions by claimants over the past four years. The South China Sea dispute has existed for decades, with China and Taiwan having the most expansive claims over the waters. The area included within the nine-dashed line overlaps with exclusive economic zones, islands and territorial waters claimed by five other states: Vietnam, which claims sovereignty over all of the Paracel and Spratly islands; the Philippines, which claims a large area of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Reef; Malaysia and Brunei, which claim a smaller area of the southern Spratlys; and Indonesia, which claims none of the disputed islands but whose exclusive economic zone overlaps the nine-dashed line.

There were bloody clashes between China and Vietnam in 1974, when China ousted the Vietnamese from half of the Paracel Islands so that it controlled the entire archipelago, and in 1988, when China for the first time established a physical presence in the Spratlys after watching other claimant states do the same. There was a period of relative calm between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, when diplomacy came to the fore and the newly expanded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) managed to draw up a Declaration of Conduct in 2002 to manage tensions. However, since 2008 the disputes have come to be characterised by increasingly hostile rhetoric, maritime paramilitary deployments and perceptions of China’s growing assertiveness.

While Beijing would claim that it was simply reacting to the more aggressive and unilateral hydrocarbon exploration by claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, China has undoubtedly become more confident in the power of its own diplomacy and is more willing to use various forms of coercion, whether economic, paramilitary or proxy diplomacy.

Stop and search
The nine-dashed line, which has been used occasionally by China to assert its claims to the South China Sea, was drawn by the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1946 and first published in early 1947. The line then had 11 dashes, but in 1953 China – by then the People’s Republic following the communist takeover– removed two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin without explanation. Since then, the only use of the nine-dashed line in official communication was in 2009, when the map was submitted as an attachment to aNote Verbale presented to the UN. The note suggested that China had ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and adjacent waters’.

The recent passport issuance, therefore, seems to represent a solidification of China’s nine-dashed line claim. This was done despite the fact that Beijing had agreed in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct to attempt to resolve the disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The nine-dashed line map, which was first published 35 years before the current UNCLOS was finalised, would be unlikely to stand up to scrutiny under international law.

The passports are not the only form of administrative diplomacy that China has undertaken in recent times. In July 2012, Beijing upgraded the county-level status of Sansha, on Hainan Island, to a prefecture-level city, with administrative responsibility for the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, as well as Scarborough Reef and Macclesfield Bank. While the move was largely symbolic, it allowed the creation of a local government and military garrison. State-run media noted that the city would administer just 13 square kilometres of land but a total of more than two million square kilometres of maritime waters, without clarifying exactly which islands were included.

In a further step, Hainan’s People’s Congress, a provincial-level legislature in the southern island, stated on 29 November that revised regulations would come into effect on 1 January 2013 allowing Hainanese border police to board and search vessels ‘illegally entering’ Chinese territorial waters. Given that the Spratly and Paracel islands are, in China’s view, under the jurisdiction of Hainan (through the Sansha city administration), vessels passing within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands in the sea could be subject to inspections by Hainanese police. The Congress also specifically emphasised that patrols in the water around Sansha City should be strengthened and coordinated with the activities of China’s maritime paramilitaries.

It is unclear whether such constabulary activity will actually be undertaken near the disputed islands, as the seagoing capabilities of the Hainan border police are limited. Moreover, little international shipping passes so close to the shallow and treacherous waters of the Spratly Islands. Nonetheless, any such stop-and-search operation would be a significant escalation in enforcement activities undertaken by China and would increase the possibility of a stand-off or even limited clash between rival paramilitary or military forces.

Attempts by Chinese law-enforcement agencies to harass shipping would inevitably encourage other claimant states to respond by deploying their own constabulary forces, risking a repeat of the impasse over Scarborough Reef in April–May 2012, when a tense stand-off developed between Chinese and Philippine paramilitary vessels. Such incidents are relatively containable as they usually involve unarmed vessels, but aggressive manoeuvres by any of the ships involved, which would augment the probability of injury or death to sailors, might create tensions from which governments would find it hard to retreat without significant loss of face.

Moves to disrupt shipping would greatly concern the United States, which has stated that it has a ‘national interest’ in ensuring freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, and is engaged in a military and diplomatic ‘rebalance’ towards Asia. While Washington has said that it maintains an impartial view of the disputes (even though it is now engaged directly in the modernisation of the Philippine navy through the donation of former coast guard vessels, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the mutual defence treaty while in Manila in May this year), the principle of freedom of navigation is prized highly in the US.

ASEAN splits
Beijing’s latest attempts to demonstrate de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea are reinforced by regular patrols by China’s maritime paramilitary vessels through the region, as well as the annual and unilateral fishing ban China has enforced since 1999. In addition, Beijing has been attempting to scupper attempts by Southeast Asian countries to forge a unified diplomatic approach to the dispute.

The latest manifestation of this occurred in mid-November at ASEAN’s annual heads of state summit that took place in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. At an ASEAN–Japan meeting, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III directly and vocally contradicted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who claimed there was an ASEAN consensus to retain negotiations over the South China Sea within an ‘ASEAN–China framework’. At the ASEAN–US meeting, Aquino more clearly elucidated Philippine support for US engagement in regional security issues.

The Philippine–Cambodian spat recalled a diplomatic deadlock that had occurred in July at an ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting which, for the first time in the organisation’s 45-year history, ended without a final communiqué being agreed (although frantic Indonesian diplomacy subsequently resulted in an ex post facto statement being drawn up). Cambodia, holding the ASEAN chairmanship for 2012, was adamant that Vietnamese and Philippine desires to have the South China Sea dispute – including the recent Scarborough Reef incident – mentioned in any joint statement could not be fulfilled.

The actions of Cambodia have raised serious concerns among other ASEAN members that Phnom Penh is essentially doing the bidding of its close ally, China, despite the negative consequences for Southeast Asian unity. Beijing is eager to prevent the internationalisation of the South China Sea dispute and prefers to deal with the disagreements on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis. As if to confirm China’s influence over its Southeast Asian ally, Cambodian Secretary of State for Finance Aun Porn Moniroth stated while visiting Beijing in September that: ‘The Chinese government also voiced high appreciation for the part played by Cambodia as the chair of ASEAN to maintain good co-operation between China and ASEAN.’ During that visit, Beijing agreed on soft loans worth $500m and a gift worth $24m for Cambodia.

The splits at the ASEAN summits have highlighted differences of opinion among member states as to how to proceed in negotiations over the South China Sea. Some states, such as Cambodia and Laos, which have a closer relationship with China and no overlapping exclusive economic zone claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, naturally have a different outlook from those littoral states in more direct competition with Beijing over maritime territory, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The facade of unity within ASEAN has, therefore, fractured somewhat, just as some members of the organisation (particularly, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia) are eager to press for a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea to be drawn up between China and ASEAN. (The 2002 Declaration of Conduct is a political rather than a legal instrument.)

Intractable dispute
The situation may change in 2013 as Brunei assumes the ASEAN chair. Although a disputant in the South China Sea and therefore eager to pursue diplomatic solutions, Brunei is less forthright in its claims than the Philippines and Vietnam. (Taiwan is stymied in its vocal claims by international isolation, and Malaysia and China have something of an unwritten understanding not to escalate the issue).

However, recent quarrels have underlined the challenge facing ASEAN not only in producing a united front towards China, but also in agreeing on the terms of a code of conduct even among its own members. The recent attempts by China to enforce its administration on the region are further evidence of the intractability of the dispute.

China is not the only party to pursue such a route: both Vietnam and the Philippines have delegated the administration of the disputed islands to the closest provinces. Vietnam has encouraged tourism to the Spratly Islands, something China is replicating with a leisure cruise to the Paracels that began operating in October. Yet, given China’s resources, its control over the Paracel Islands and the fact that its size means its actions often have greater effects, China’s administrative measures arguably carry greater weight.

Taken together with its posture in the South China Sea, China’s activities in its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands indicate growing confidence in its maritime diplomacy. Since September, when Tokyo nationalised three of the disputed islands by purchasing them from a Japanese civilian, China has maintained near-constant deployments of unarmed maritime paramilitary vessels near the island group. Beijing alsoupdated its baselines – the lines drawn around a coast or island from which territorial or exclusive economic zones are measured – submitted to the UN to include the disputed islands for the first time. Both measures indicate the administrative diplomacy China is using to fulfil its goals in maritime disputes: by deploying regular paramilitary patrols and using legal recourse to reinforce its claim, Beijing is attempting to demonstrate de facto sovereignty over the islands.

This bodes ill for the prospects of resolving the disagreements. During his speech to the Chinese Communist Party National Party Congress in November, out-going President Hu Jintao noted his desire to ‘resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests’. While there is great uncertainty over the likely direction of foreign policy under the fifth generation of leaders set to take power under Xi Jinping, Hu’s language did not suggest much value was placed in the possibility of compromise over maritime disputes.

Discussions between China and ASEAN are likely to continue in 2013, but the result may not be the substantive code of conduct necessary to alleviate concerns over the effects of China’s rise and the possibility of a negotiated solution. The waters in the South China Sea are not likely to be calmed for some time.

 

(Original version is available at IISS Editorial Board)

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