BEIJING is slowly but steadily changing the nature, geography, landscape and the history of the South China Sea (SCS) to suit its geopolitical strategy and to further bolster its claims.
China’s uncompromising stand on the whole of the SCS, despite the Haguebased Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling handed in July 201 6 favouring the Philippines and rejecting Beijing’s position, continue to have serious ramifications to regional and international peace, security and stability.
The international community should not close its eyes on the bullying tactics and militarisation by China in the SCS.
If it is not stopped, it would provide China with a “blank cheque’’ to control almost the entire SCS forcefully, that is about 3.5 million square km of territory.
One after another, the development and the powerful projection by China and the response by Washington for the past few years which points to a dangerous situation for the future could unleash a potential military conflict which would be far from the low-level incidence that it currently represent.
Asean members watched helplessly as China reclaimed more than 3,200 acres of land since the end of 201 3.
This was not only illegal but it amounts to more than 400 times the amount of reclamation work undertaken by all other claimant countries, in the span of four decades.
This was not only illegal but it amounts to more than 400 times the reclamation work undertaken by all other claimant countries, in the span of four decades.
The are five other claimant countries: Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has built three militarylength airfields of 3,000 meter, designed to house bombers and fighters, bunkers have also been built, antimissile and anti-aircraft guns have also been installed on the reclaimed lands.
This is indicative that China is slowly putting in place the necessary infrastructure and assets for a mini military base, something which would threaten the interest of the countries in the region and by extension that of the US.
The question is whether the US will be left with no choice but to respond even more aggressively against China’s presence in the disputed waters?
In other words, China’s actions are contributing to the destabilisation of the whole area and this might have far-reaching consequences if left unchecked.
Since October 201 5, the US warships have reportedly sailed close to Chinese artificial islands and the occupied island of Paracels.
While the US was forced to take such measures, China had warned the US that prior permission must be sought before its vessels transits in the vicinity of the territory claimed by China, which is something that goes against international laws
In February this year after Trump took office, the U.S. deployed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and guided missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer to show Washington’s seriousness in ‘upholding the freedom of navigation, in the SCS.
China responded by saying the US actions were only ‘upholding’ in words not by actions.
In October 201 6, China asked the USS Decatur to leave an area in the SCS after the vessel sailed near the Paracel Islands, where China had deployed surface to air missiles.
Earlier in January, another destroyer Curtis Wilbur sailed within 1 2 nautical miles of Triton Island, a territory claimed by China while in May during the ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise, in the Spratly islands, China sent fighter jets as a response.
China too on its part deployed its only aircraft carrier Liaoning to patrol the South China Sea in December 201 6, in a power projection and a direct challenge to the U.S.
These developments are unprecedented in the South China Sea and China’s actions are not helping in preventing the area from becoming a flashpoint.
Judging from China’s past and present action, there is no guarantee that China will not limit free movement in SCS.
The US is expected to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in near future and if its ships go within 1 2 nautical miles of these artificial islands to challenge China, then a direct or indirect military confrontation is more likely to happen.
The South China Sea which links the Indian and Pacific Ocean is such a strategic area that more than US$5.3 trillion trade passes through every year.
The economic prosperity of so many countries and livelihood of billions of people depends on the safety passage of ships in this area which is also rich in untapped natural gas, oil and fisheries.
As such an unhindered, free access to the South China Sea is vital to so many nation.
But China’s activities continue to show that there is every possibility for rising tensions that could turn into a threat to international trade. unchecked.
HISTORIC RIGHTS or COOKED UP RIGHTS?
In stressing it’s socalled “historic rights” to resources in the South China Sea and the virtually nonexistent ninedash line, China is deliberately trying to erase the real history while ignoring facts and and international laws.
Making claims based on a 2,000 years history does not make China look serious, it even undermines its credibility.
It makes China’s argument weak, and the entire historic rights argument as an after-thought idea.
If countries start to make claims based on ancient history, the world would be turned upside down.
Such claims don’t hold waters and China know that but it also knows that it can use its economic and military might to flex its muscle against other countries over the issue.
The “historic rights” China is talking about are about 1,500 km away from China’s territory.
There are no historic records whatsoever to show until 1 990’s that China had mentioned the historic rights.
Even when the Communists came to power in 1 949, the new government never mentioned this for a longlong time.
The concept of nationstate and that of sovereignty, which has shaped and has characterised modern states as well as territorial claims did not exist during the ancient times.
In fact, China is among the countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and UNCLOS itself rejects any excessive and contrary claims based on history.
On the other hand, the PCA ruling stated there was no legal basis whatsoever for Beijing to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas of the U-
shaped ‘ninedash line’, including the Spratly islands.
The court also blamed China for the environmental destruction brought about by its land reclamation and artificial islands construction.
China’s activities in the SCS brought untold destruction to marine lives. Coral reefs destruction in the Spratly islands so huge, of more than 30 square miles.
It is estimated there are more than 500 coral species in the area. This involves not only environmental damages but also economic losses due to the damages to the precious reefs.
Thus China is directly responsible for this permanent damage to the fragile eco-system, which again has very much to do with its illegal activities in SCS.
PCA RULING A MORAL DEFEAT FOR BEIJING
In order to stop China from continuing to build artificial islands and to be involved in the process of damaging the environment, and militarising the area.
These actions contribute to raising tensions that could lead to restricting freedom of navigation and threatening access for free movement of goods, the only answer is a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS.
China and Asean signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS in 2002 to settle maritime disputes peacefully and after 1 4 years of dragging its feet to process the code due to China’s “political games’’, it has finally entered an important phase.
In the current phase, both sides will discuss the framework for the COC in May with the first draft of the COC had been completed.
Among others, key areas expected to be covered are freedom of navigation and deployment of offensive weapons.
With the PCA ruling, Beijing is now left with a facesaving measure, the COC.
The PCA ruling creates an atmosphere conducive for the ASEAN members and China to speed up the processes.
To tell the truth, since China has got not much options, it must realise the reality on the ground and abide by international laws and rulings.