South China Sea dispute zooms in the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of islands
Just a week after ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and India were reeling from news that new Chinese e-passports contained a map showing nearly all of the South China Sea (SCS) as well as a disputed border between China and India as part of Chinese territory, and five months after ASEAN failed to reach a consensus to confront China’s growing tensions in the SCS, the Middle Kingdom’s latest gambit hit member states hard.
On November 27, the Standing Committee of the Hainan Provincial People’s Congress made an unexpected disclosure: Starting January 1, Hainan provincial police will be authorized to “land on, check, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the island province’s sea areas.”
Hainan Island (in the SCS) is China’s southernmost province. China claims that the province’s territories extend to the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and other disputed marine territory.
However, much of Hainan’s new regulations, which will be released in full January 1, are ambiguous. It defines six practices of illegal activities of foreign ships or crews, which include illegal landing on the islands, damaging coastal facilities or facilities for production and living, and carrying out campaigns that endanger China’s national security.
Backlash from the announcement was immediate. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan expressed concern that China’s plan could escalate tensions in the area, adding that Beijing’s plan was a “very serious turn of events.”
Vietnam (China’s bitter rival for decades over the Paracel Islands) condemned the disclosure, as did the Philippines, which also has a territorial dispute with China in the Spratleys.
India for her part, unlike Vietnam and the Philippines, has no overlapping SCS claims with China, but has more muscle, both economically and militarily. With an eye on her oil and gas exploration interests in the SCS with Vietnam, New Delhi said it was prepared to deploy naval ships in the area to protect oil interests.
Indian naval chief Admiral D.K. Joshi said that India was not a claimant in the territorial dispute but that it was prepared to act, if necessary, to protect its maritime and economic interests in the region.
"Now, are we preparing for it?” he said. “Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes.”
However, India appears to be saber rattling. Stein Tønnesson, a professor and scholar at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University told Energy Tribune that Indian state owned company ONGC’s concession block is far away from the Paracels.
Tønnesson, who had returned from a trip to Hainan a day before he spoke to Energy Tribune, said that the block is located between the Spratley Islands and the Vietnamese coast, a long distance from any 12 nautical mile territory.
Seemingly trying to quell fears over the issue, Wu Shicun, director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan Province, said a few days after the disclosure that Chinese vessels would be allowed to search and repel foreign ships only if they were engaged in illegal activity within the 12-nautical mile zone surrounding the islands that China claims.
Both Tønnesson and Shicun are referring a UN mandate that states that every country has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles.
However, earlier Shicun said that the new regulations applied to all of the islands scattered across the sea and their surroundings, including islands claimed by other countries. This would include the disputed Paracels and Spratley Islands.
A report by the state-run China Daily corroborates Shicun’s statement. “The revisions also emphasized border police should strengthen the patrolling of the waters of Sansha [a newly formed Chinese city that is part of the Paracel Islands],” it said on November 28. China Daily also said that Sansha is under the jurisdiction of Hainan.
This begs the question: Did the central government in Beijing initiate or even approve the new Hainan regulations? US Ambassador to China Gary Locke told Reuters last week that it was unclear if Beijing approved Hainan’s actions or not.
Tønnesson said that his assumption is that the regulations originated in Hainan but had been discussed with the central government in Beijing.
While talk has centered mostly on overlapping territorial claims, oil exploration and production companies drilling in the SCS have been silent on the issue. When contacted by Energy Tribune, none would comment. Interesting, since it could very well be their ships that are stopped, boarded and potentially seized.
The oil-gas factor
Nobody gave much thought to the SCS until hydrocarbons were found after World War II. Now, it is one of the hottest geopolitical stories.
Natural gas, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), is more abundant in the area than oil. The USGS estimates that about 60%-70% of the area’s hydrocarbon resources are natural gas and has placed the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the South China Sea at 266 Tcf. Chinese estimates are considerably higher.
(See: The South China Sea: WikiLeak Cables, Little Tricks, Awash In Controversy, August 7, 2012)
Not only is the SCS rich in oil and gas, its shipping lanes are some of the busiest in the world and more than half of the world’s oil tanker traffic pass through the SCS. It is also the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
While Southeast Asia has to wait until January to see what unfolds, Tønnesson said that if the regulations [when published] would also at some point be used to legitimize operations in the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of islands that are presently occupied by other countries [overlapping claims], then it would be “extremely provocative and lead to immediate crisis and possible international conflagration.”
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