Beijing bullies its South China Sea neighbors, then falsely accuses US of ‘intrusion’
On August 28, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet sailed into international waters off the Chinese mainland to demonstrate its “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The following day, Reuters asked Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian about the transit of US ships near Taiwan, where tensions have been high since the controversial visit of the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, August 2.
Zhao quoted the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command as saying the Chinese military was keeping “all movements of the two US warships under control.”
“US warships frequently flex their muscles in the name of exercising freedom of navigation,” Zhao said.
“It’s not about keeping the region free and open. This is a provocation aimed at “freedom of intrusion” and constitutes a deliberate sabotage of regional peace and stability. »
Zhao’s intrusion accusation is false.
Although China accuses the United States of sabotaging “regional peace and security”, the dossier shows that it is Beijing which repeatedly threatens its neighbors with sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, as well as other aggressive actions.
The 7th Fleet said the freedom of navigation operation was carried out “in accordance with international law”, noting that the ships “passed through a corridor in the strait which is beyond the territorial sea of any coastal state”. .
He added that the US Navy would continue to operate “wherever international law permits.”
These freedom of navigation operations did not come out of nowhere.
China is trying to control which ships can operate where in the region, enforcing the so-called “nine-dash line”, an arbitrary boundary that Beijing says gives it control over most of the South China Sea.
But the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) clearly defines the territorial waters of coastal states (like China) and archipelagic states or island nations (like Indonesia and the Philippines).
China’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its low water mark or baseline.
In addition, Article 19 of UNCLOS, which concerns innocent passage, allows foreign vessels, even military ones, to cross the territorial waters of another State as long as this passage “does not prejudice the peace, the good order or safety of the coastal State”. .”
Coastal states cannot claim territorial waters around submerged features and low tide shoals (i.e. a naturally formed area of land submerged at high tide) that lie outside their waters territorial.
China, however, did just that in 2009, emphatically asserting that it had “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters as well as on the seabed and its subsoil”.
In 2016, following a challenge from the Philippines, the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China’s sweeping claim.
China has ignored the move as it steps up its efforts to control most of the South China Sea, while bullying neighboring countries trying to assert their rights.
As for “intrusion,” China has repeatedly launched incursions into its neighbors’ backyards claiming territory within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Some countries, such as Malaysia, have attempted to engage in “quiet diplomacy” over China’s claims, although a June 2021 flight of 16 Chinese fighter jets over Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, sparked protests.
Indonesia has also faced Chinese encroachment in what it calls the North Natuna Sea, which falls into Indonesia’s EEZ in the southern part of the South China Sea.
Beni Sukadis, a national security analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said the Malaysian and Indonesian navies react to incursions by Chinese coastguard vessels by “tailing” them “rather than confronting them. and force them to leave”.
This practice, he said, reflected their calculation of the risk “regarding Beijing’s assertion”.
Indonesia has tried not to upset the apple basket with China and is officially a non-claimant state in the South China Sea.
But earlier this month, more than 5,000 American, Indonesian, Australian, Japanese and Singaporean troops took part in joint combat exercises on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Elsewhere in the region, China has repeatedly sunk Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracel Islands and has reportedly used the threat of force to stop Vietnamese drilling projects that lie inside the nine-dash line.
The Philippines has filed more than 300 diplomatic protests against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.
In November 2021, the Chinese Coast Guard blocked and used water cannons against Philippine supply vessels heading for the Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal, a submerged reef in the disputed Spratly Islands which are in the EEZ of the Philippines. .
On June 9, the Philippines “protested against the return of more than 100 Chinese vessels operating illegally in the waters of Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef,” which also falls within the country’s EEZ.
The incident came about a year after more than 200 Chinese ships “invaded” the region, stoking tensions.
While the Philippines has also sought to avoid going to war with China over the South China Sea, earlier this year the United States and the Philippines conducted their largest joint military exercises in the shadow Sino-Taiwanese tensions.
In March, a senior US Navy commander said China had militarized at least three islands in the South China Sea, equipping them with “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment. and fighter jets,” the Associated Press reported. .
This, the commander said, constitutes “China’s largest military build-up since World War II.”
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says China has established 20 outposts on island groups in the region. The initiative is a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC think tank.