How Far Will The Dragon Swim?
CHINA BUILDING LIGHT HOUSES ON FIVE ISLANDS IN DEFIANCE OF U.S./ REGIONAL NATIONS OBJECTIONSUpdated 12/20/2015
Photo Philippines department of Foreign Affairs
China has been waging a sort of "war" against its neighbors in the south and East China Seas for some years now. We follow their escapades in our series "HOW FAR WILL THE DRAGON SWIM". In the last two years they have shifted their muscle displays from the use of their navy to what is now the world's largest coast guard. Dragon cutters routinely violate the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters of neighbors, and in the case of Vietnam, their recognized territorial sea, and chase out fishermen claiming that they are violating Chinese waters.
China simply claims all of the China seas right up to near the beach of the Philippine main islands as part of its territorial waters. There is no legal basis for this claim. China refuses to answer to the International courts where neighbors have filed complaints, but recently the Philippines did get a default judgement. China ignores the courts but realizes they are not toothless. The default judgement makes it awfully hard for China to sell mineral leases outside her own recognized EEZ waters and the waters she covets are thought to have serious oil reserves. Cooperative development and peaceful arbitration over the few legitimate boundary disputes would be the best course. But China is a thug state so that's not happening.
Despite the lack of a legal basis for a claim to the entire region China is conducting a kind of "lawfare", just not in court yet. Her Coast Guard cutters meet and greet foreign shipping passing through the contested zones and "welcome" the ships to "Chinese waters" and announce that they will be escorting them for part of their transit. In actuality they don't "escort" so much as simply follow on a parallel course, no helm orders are issued, or course changes directed, and the "escort" drops off pretty shortly after the radio contact. The whole purpose is to build a potential witness list of commercial ship captains who can testify as to the "effective administration" of an expanded EEZ by China. "Effective administration" is second only to effective settlement in territorial dispute legal arguments for a successful litigation. On August 7, 2014 China announced that it will establish "lighthouses" on uninhabited islets in defiance to objections by the United States and the Philippines. Three of the lighthouses will be in the Philippine EEZ and two will be in Vietnam's EEZ. The disputed lighthouse sites are known in English as North Reef, Drummond Island, Antelope Reef, South Sand, and Pyramid Rock. As the English names indicate these are often semi submerged fly specks that probably do pose an occasional hazard to navigation.
Therein is the brilliance of the Dragon's skulduggery. The Chinese "Coast Guard" has about three times as many ships as the U.S. Navy. The service was cobbled together from a variety of former Chinese maritime agencies militarized and given police powers. Thanks to one or more of their predecessor agencies they have the capacity to establish a simple light house like structure very rapidly and the military power, without calling in their navy, to keep all interference with the construction away from the sites. Once such a primary visual aid to navigation is established international law frowns on anyone who would destroy it or even interfere with its function. So China establishes lighthouses, if the Philippines destroys them some unguarded night China has grounds for an International court lawsuit. Should China win that's a strong argument for "effective administration" over at least the islands with lighthouses. If left alone the actual lighthouses are still valuable physical evidence of "effective administration". Welcome to the physical side of "lawfare".
The Philippines and Vietnam don't have the combined naval and coast guard strength to fight off the aggressive Chinese coast guard. China forces the Philippines and Vietnam ( and Japan where the Dragon has similar thievery going on) to spend more on naval defense, they have less for establishing lighthouses, and fishing facilities in their EEZs. In the case of the Philippines and Vietnam China can destroy anything they build in the region and China doesn't respond to service of process from international courts. Not responding, in the Dragon's mind, doesn't impede her ability to make complaint. That's the paper shuffle side of maritime lawfare. As previously mentioned the South China Sea is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has important fisheries. China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have claims to parts of the sea, through which passes about $5 trillion of trade a year. Most of the disputes between and among the non Chinese claimants are about boundaries where their claims adjoin within distances where the United Nations Convention on The Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires negotiated boundaries. None of these nations claim EEZs that extend beyond 200 miles from their mainland or other claims that flagrantly disregard the provisions of UNCLOS. China by contrast makes outrageous claims in total disregard of its neighbors rights and UNCLOS provisions. While in the 1980s they simply shot Vietnamese sailors who got in the way, the preferred Chinese method today for pressing their claims seems to be maritime "lawfare". We don't expect the Dragon to back off absent serious naval opposition until they have secured all of the known oil rich areas, perhaps 90% of their claims, leaving their neighbors with a 12 mile territorial sea and feeling lucky to have that. The next item on the Dragon agenda after that is "pushing the United States Navy back to Pearl Harbor". The minimum effect of a misstep in this Dragon game of lawfare is degeneration into real naval warfare in the South and East China Seas.
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