The United States for the first time in response to China’s growing intransigence and brinkmanship in the Western Pacific on its maritime disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea has come out with an explicit assertion disputing China’s claims of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea through its legally untenable Nine Dash Line.
This assertion emerged in a testimony by the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Danny Russell before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 05, 2014 when he stated that “Under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the Nine Dash Line by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its Nine Dash Line claim to bring in accordance with the international law of the sea”
In US think tanks commentaries it has been amplified that in interpreting the UNCLOS it would appear that ‘there is no provision in the UNCLOS to granting rights to waters such as the South China Sea, without regard to land based sovereign rights’, and further that ‘they are linked to specific inhabitable islands’. It now seems that what has been implied by the United States so far has now emerged as an explicit assertion as US policy by the Assistant Secretary of State.
The US House Committee on Foreign Affairs has been holding hearings from January 2014 on China’s growing profile of brinkmanship in the South China Sea and East China Sea reflecting the growing concerns that presumably the United Sates has by its ambiguous stands in the South China Sea maritime disputes generated by China has encouraged China towards increasing intransigence against her less powerful neighbours.
Coming out in the testimonies of various US think tanks experts on the issue was the strategic reality that the South China Sea sovereignty disputes and also the East China Sea dispute were no longer territorial disputes but encompassed wider strategic ramifications of concern to the United States.
In this direction, the following excerpt from the testimony of Jeff M Smith, Director South Asia Program, American Foreign Policy Council is illustrative: “However, the issue of maritime sovereignty in the East and South China Seas encompasses more than simply China’s territorial disputes. It also involves a volatile dispute between the United States and China over the type of sovereignty China is claiming over the 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone, and the right of the US military to conduct surveillance operations there. China’s position on this matter poses a direct challenge to US national security interests in the region”.
Further in the same testimony it has been pointed out that Beijing argues that EEZ should be treated more like a country’s territorial sea where the state enjoys sovereign rights including the right to deny foreign military vessels permission to conduct surveillance activities. Towards this end “China is the only country which has “operationally challenged” US warships o multiple occasions resulting in several confrontations at sea, the most recent being the USS COWPENS incident in December 2013.”
Confrontations at sea in the South China Sea between US naval ships and Chinese Navy ships have increased of late and stand enumerated and listed as an Appendix in one of the testimonies. These always do not find mention in the media but in effect China’s obsession to enforce her maritime sovereignty in the whole of South China Sea region enclosed by its legally untenable Nine Dash Line inherently carry the dangers of such China-imposed incidents at sea spiralling into full-fledged hostilities.
The present US assertion explicitly disputing China’s Nine Dash Line claims on virtually the entire South China Sea is bound to gladden the hearts of countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Vietnam and so also Japan who have been at the receiving end of China’s political and military coercion on its dubious claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Concluding the following observations need to be made on this issue:
• South China Sea conflict escalation by China has contributed to this dispute emerging not only as an explosive flash-point between China and its Asian neighbours but also now emerges as a volatile global flash-point between China and the United States. • China stood encouraged in its intransigent and hostile postures in the South China Sea resultantly because of United States ambiguous stands on this critical threatening dispute. • United States has finally come out with an explicit assertion disputing the Nine Dash Line claim of China after virtually being increasingly cornered by China Navy ships confrontations at sea with US Navy ships. • United States realistically needs to overcome its dilemma of being torn between not allowing China to gain unimpeded control over the South China Sea and its reluctance to be drawn into open hostilities with China.
( Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group. The writer, Dr Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)