Sea Of Absurdity: Sansha, China’s New Island “City”

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By Richard Cronin and Zach Dubel 

Conflicting maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea are serious business involving potentially North Sea-scale offshore oil and gas deposits; fisheries that are increasingly coveted because of rising seafood demand and questions about their sustainability; and geographic position astride globally important sea lanes.  While most of the maritime territorial disputes involve serious national interests, moves by China and some of its neighbors to assert their claims occasionally veer toward the absurd. 

The contested territorial claims include rights to the resources of continental shelves and a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to which coastal and archipelagic states are entitled under the prevailing United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and islands, atolls, shoals, reefs and submerged banks claimed by China and one or more of four Southeast Asian countries as well as Taiwan.  Also at issue are traditional rights that are not specifically addressed by UNCLOS of both regional and extra-regional countries, including the United States, to freedom of navigation and military operations in waters over continental shelves and the EEZs.

Having become more and more assertive during the past few years in contesting its claims through the use and threat of force, China has now upped the ante by announcing the creation of the new municipality of Sansha (or “Three Sands”) in the South China Sea.  The “Three Sands” name of the new prefecture refers to the three most important disputed geographic features of the South China Sea-the Paracels and Spratlys island groups, and the completely submerged Macclesfield Bank that China calls, respectively as the Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands.  Sansha will, at least nominally, assume administrative control over the former county-level administrative office based on Hainan Island, its southernmost province.

The governmental seat of this new prefecture-level city is based on what it calls Yongxing Island, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) southeast of Hainan Island.  The island, known on international charts as Woody Island and to Vietnam as Phu Lam Island, is so small that a 8,900 ft. long (2,700 m.) airstrip, which the Chinese military completed in 1990 to extend the range of its patrol, fighter and transport aircraft, sticks out nearly half the width of the island into its surrounding coral reef and the sea itself. The total area claimed by the city itself simultaneously makes it one of the smallest and largest cities in the world-the total land amount of land is under 15 square kilometers (less than two percent of the land area of New York City), but the water area claimed by Sansha approaches nearly 2-million square kilometers.

China’s establishment of Sansha Municipality directly conflicts with the claims of one or more of four other countries-Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and overlaps entirely with those of Taiwan.  The Paracel Islands are also claimed by Vietnam.  They are now entirely controlled by China, which seized some of them from then-South Vietnam by force of arms in 1974 and the rest from a united Vietnam in 1988.  The Spratlys group also claimed in entirety or parts by Vietnam, which occupies the largest number, as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, to which they are closest, and Taiwan.  The Macclesfield Bank, a vast, totally submerged atoll with rich fishing grounds to the east of the Paracels is also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

China uses the dodgy basis of “historical waters” to claim some 90 percent of the sea as a kind of new Southeast Asian version of the Roman’s mare nostrum–the Mediterranean Sea– an area it circumscribes on its maps with a so-called 9-dashed line, known colloquially as the “cow’s tongue” because of its drooping shape.  China has never explained the exact meaning of the line, which was originated by the pre-1949 Chinese Nationalist Government, but it is shown on all Chinese maps, including one that China attached without comment as an appendix to a 2009 protest to UNCLOS in response to continental shelf claims submitted by Malaysia and Vietnam.  Taiwan uncharacteristically supports the PRC’s claim despite itself still occupying Taiping Island, the largest feature in the multi-claimant Spratlys group.  Blood, it seems, really is thicker than water in disputes with their Southeast Asian neighbors.

The nine-dashed line in particular totally undercuts the main purpose of UNCLOS, which was adopted in 1982 and came into force in 1994, principally to bring order to a growing tendency of countries to assert economic rights to their continental shelves.  The United States, which had a major role in initiating and shaping the treaty, has signed but not yet ratified it.  Nonetheless, three successive US administrations have supported its principles, while China, which along with some 161 other countries and the EU, has ratified/acceded to the convention,  cherry picks the parts that are advantageous, and opposes or misconstrues the rest.   (The treaty, which currently is on the US Senate’s agenda, enjoys the support of a bipartisan majority but as in the past, a few implacable opponents have succeeded in blocking a vote.) All of the rival claimants except for tiny Brunei also have some questionable positions but most of these are at least arguably reconcilable with UNCLOS.  China’s declaration of an island with a population of some 1,100 or so inhabitants mainly military and none of them indigenous, as the Administrative headquarters over geographic features that are also claimed by one or more other coastal states has set off a fire-storm of criticism as well gasps of astonishment at the audacity of China’s latest move

While undoubtedly the move will increase diplomatic tensions in the region, it is important to note the likelihood that the creation of a new military garrison may not result in any meaningful increase in Chinese firepower in the South China Sea.  According to the Chinese Ministry of Defense, the responsibilities for the Sansha garrison will be defense mobilization, militia reserves, guarding the city, and disaster relief, and that “whether a military establishment has combat forces or not depends on its military tasks.”

The responsibility for maritime defense, however, remains with the separate Xisha (Chinese for the Paracels) garrison under the South Sea Fleet of the PLAN, as it has for years. Subsequently, it appears as though the bulk of this new garrison will likely be administrative and logistics staff-hardly a sign of China embracing the military option for dispute settlement. Instead you have a move that sounds imposing, and would also help solidify China’s claim to administration of the islands it controls, but ultimately may not lead to any real increase in the number of Chinese guns in the South China Sea.

No event demonstrates the polarization of Southeast Asia over China’s assertive promotion of questionable maritime territorial claims more than the unprecedented failure of the ASEAN foreign ministers to adopt a final communique at their annual meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 because of differences over the South China Sea disputes.  For the first time in its 45-year history the consensus-obsessed ASEAN countries could not agree on the language of the normally bland document.  Cambodia, the host government and China’s best friend in Southeast Asia, balked at the demand by Vietnam and the Philippines for a reference to the uneven confrontation between Chinese and Philippines ships at Scarborough Shoal in the Spratlys. 

Because of Cambodia’s insistence that mention of the South China Sea confrontation could not be included in the communique the delegates left without issuing one.  It is hardly unusual for ASEAN to avoid mentioning controversial issues, but it unprecedented for any issue to cause the failure to achieve a least-common-denominator consensus on a final communique. This fracture in ASEAN may have far-reaching repercussions for the South China Sea dispute, not the least which will be a continuing inability for the ASEAN claimants to work through the regional organization to persuade China to join in any sort of code of conduct.

Photo Credit: Google Earth

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