China’s efforts to expand its territorial and maritime sovereignty by dredging new land on remote coral atolls in the South China Sea, have left the international community - led by the US - struggling to develop a coherent and appropriate response. For the UAE, observing global reaction to China's expansionism perhaps serves as a useful indication of how its own claims to the Abu Musa and Tunb Islands in the Strait of Hormuz are perceived, but more critically, how any potential acquisitional moves by Iran would be received by the international community - and the likelihood of it supporting the UAE in any response.
China claims 90 per cent of the waters of the South China Sea, a major international shipping route and an area which is believed to have large oil and gas reserves. China's neighbours, including Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei have all disputed Beijing's claims on the sea and India reacted angrily in early June when China declared that it was not permitted to explore for oil in areas of the South China Sea. But the Obama administration is increasingly finding itself in the uncomfortable position of being pushed into taking the lead in confronting Beijing, while struggling in its diplomatic efforts to establish consensus in Southeast Asia on exactly what it can and should do to deter China, yet without damaging trade, diplomacy and regional security. As Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute in Sydney noted, “The obvious frustration for the US is that all the Southeast Asian countries, with the possible exception of the Philippines, do not want to make a choice between China, their main trading partner, and the US, the main provider of security in the region.”.
An added complication to US assertions of 'unfair play' by China is that each of the neighbouring countries has occupied its own islands, and some are even carrying out their own land reclamation projects. Several nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have developed outposts in the contested waterway, but China has claimed more than 2,000 acres of land — more than all the other countries combined — in the past 18 months. At the Shangri-La Security Summit in Singapore in May, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter called on all parties to stop land reclamation. Other diplomatic efforts include a common “code of conduct” among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — four of which have claims in the South China Sea — which would commit them not to reclaim land in legally binding language, and which would also conveniently place additional diplomatic pressure on China to comply.
At the Singapore gathering, China adroitly avoided directly addressing the question of its sovereign rights for the artificial islands it is creating on the submerged reefs and atolls in the Spratlys. Sovereignty is something traditionally defined collectively, but during the Shangri La summit, Hua Chunying, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, made a series of points that signalled a mounting unilateralism on the issue. China’s claims in the South China Sea were formed over “..the long course of history..” and have “..adequate historical and legal basis.” she asserted. China’s construction work, she claimed, is “lawful, reasonable and justified,” and is proceeding “at a pace and with a scale befitting her international responsibilities.”
In 2009, during the first go-round of China’s extended push to assert control over almost all of the South China Sea, Beijing staked its claim by way of a map it submitted to the United Nations. The map, previously dismissed as an obscure relic of Nationalist rule in the early 20th century, gained importance due to its most important feature: a loop in the form of nine dashes that encompassed hundreds of miles of ocean, from China’s southernmost province, the island of Hainan, to the shores of several Southeast Asian nations, enclosing one of the world’s most important waterways. The map effectively warned China’s neighbours that it was becoming increasingly acquisitional as it grew in strength - and belligerence. However, at the time, there was an international consensus that even China itself did not believe that it had a true claim on the territory: the clear giveaway that China lacked faith in any legal basis to its claim was its refusal to participate in a case brought by the Philippines to a U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal in 2013, which directly challenged China's re-drawn boundaries.
But as is now clear to the UAE and the international community, there is a distinct ambivalence in the definitions of Article 121 of UNCLOS. As with several areas of the convention, the UN couldn’t arrive at a clear consensus over what actually defined an island, so the resultant legislation was (perhaps deliberately) weak, opaque and certainly capable of being manipulated by member states.
A consensus that islands should be ‘naturally-formed’ has long prevailed,
particularly after the International Law Commission’s detailed considerations during the early 1950s over artificial islands. But that hasn’t stopped states, such as the UAE, from creating man-made islands to increase opportunities for real estate and oil extraction (cheaper from a land mass than a floating rig) for example. To the (presumed) relief of the UAE's leadership, there are few in the international community who would challenge the UAE's stance that Reem Island in Abu Dhabi and the Palm development in Dubai are anything other than sovereign UAE territory!
Although the Article states that “rocks which cannot sustain habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf” (though what constitutes a 'rock ' is unclear), there is no definition within the Article regarding the original size of an 'island', nor addressing the legality concerning its potential for artificial expansion and any later habitability.
It is this aspect which plays to China's exploitation and expansion of submerged 'rocks', sandbanks and atolls: in particular, China’s dredging efforts appear to be a great success and have created an island able to accommodate substantial military facilities, including a 3km runway capable of handling fighter jets. The Pentagon has claimed that China has already placed weapons on some of the artificial islands.US analysts fear the next step is for China to claim airspace over the South China Sea by declaring an air defence identification zone once the runway is finished.
On the assumption that nautical limits can be established around its islands, China will be able to bar foreign navies from large expanses of the South China Sea, and if the 200 nautical mile standard can be applied sufficiently widely, not only would this place China in total control over all commercial and civilian shipping in the area, but it would become a no-go zone for any unauthorised military shipping - a new “Great Wall of Sand,” as the U.S. commander in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, put it. That is why, from Washington’s perspective, facing up to Beijing and preventing it from establishing any precedent, appears compelling. It should not go unnoticed by the UAE that if Iran claimed, seized and occupied Abu Musa and the Tunbs and applied similar exclusion zones around them, this would mean that Iran would have absolute control of the Strait of Hormuz.
It is notable that after a statement was made at the Shangri-La summit by Hua Chunying, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, claiming that "..freedom of navigation has never been and will never be an issue", she also added that this concept should not be used “as an excuse to infringe upon the sovereignty, rights and security of coastal countries.”. An implicit warning to the United States, perhaps.
"We've all benefited from free and open access to the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. We all have a fundamental stake in the security of the South China Sea," US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said during the Singapore Summit. "That's why we all have deep concerns about any party that attempts to undermine the status quo and generate instability there." However, although he stated quite clearly that China had no right to assert a 12-mile international maritime control zone around reclaimed land, Admiral Harris suggested that the US administration was still debating whether or not to challenge the 12 mile claim. But to accede to such a demand, according to Senator John McCain of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, and not to challenge it "..would be a de facto recognition of what the Chinese are trying to achieve.”.
Carter did, however, boldly assert in Singapore that American military assets would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” adding pointedly that “turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.” However, there is genuine concern within the international community that an overly hawkish and aggressive US response could escalate tensions, alienate allies and partners in the region or even lead to an altercation with Chinese naval vessels, which could have serious implications for global stability, by potentially sucking other belligerents, such as Russia and its allies into this and other similar conflicts. If this were to occur, it would not be ridiculous to suggest that this could potentially encourage Iran to reconsider its intentions towards the UAE and the Abu Musa and the Tunbs islands.
All of that said, there exists a widely-held perception in Beijing that Obama is weak and his administration has no real intention to stop China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Defence Secretary Ash Carter and his team insisted that the U.S. has many methods of pushing back against Chinese aggression, but it is simply being prudent, stepping up its pressure on China in small increments, by increasing its rhetoric, along with its military operations in the area, including flying surveillance planes over Chinese “islands” with CNN reporters on board. The relationship with China is delicate, and overreaction to Chinese assertiveness carries risks. American officials said the best course of action to resolve the islands issue is through diplomacy and Carter expressed hope that China will sign a joint code of conduct with its Southeast Asian neighbours this year.
But this sentiment is largely lost on Beijing and the Chinese military, which interpret American caution as weakness and the democratic process of policy-making in Washington as indecisiveness, ripe for exploitation. The Chinese apparently perceived further weakness when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing in May. According to Chinese observers, Kerry told his hosts that the U.S. wanted to work with them on a range of issues, including North Korea, Iran and Syria, and the two powers shouldn’t allow the South China Sea issue to impede broader cooperation. Whilst those who know Kerry realise that this is his manner, and shouldn't suggest that he was downplaying the South China Sea tensions, the Chinese interpreted it as an indication that the U.S. did not have the appetite to confront them. As a result of this Chinese perception - or misunderstanding - of US intent, UAE analysts and planners should be prompted to consider this in their strategic considerations should they - or indeed Iran - ever choose to make a more aggressive claim on Abu Musa and the Tunb islands.
At its root, the fermenting dispute between Beijing and Washington is about two issues that could determine the future of the international order, but both of which will also resonate with the UAE vis-a-vis their stance on the Abu Musa and the Tunbs islands: firstly, how major powers should interpret maritime law and, secondly, the concept and relevance of being a global 'superpower'. Both closely-intertwined issues demonstrate the radically different positions that China and the US adopt.
Both issues reflect the countries' very different geographic circumstances: the USA is a global power projecting its strength overseas principally via a navy that can dominate either of the world’s two largest oceans, by simply setting sail from the east or the west coast, as well as from Alaska in the north and from the Pacific islands of Hawaii and Guam.
China, by contrast, is surrounded by historically troublesome, terrestrial neighbours, and its one coastline, in the East, is restricted along its length by an array of countries from the Korean Peninsula to Indonesia. Moreover, since World War II, the US has maintained strong military alliances with - and physical bases in - many of the key territories off China’s coast, most notably Japan and the Philippines. For over seventy years, American bases throughout the region have enabled the U.S. Navy to be the dominant force in the region's seas.
Today’s China is determined to become the primary maritime power, but to do so, Beijing must first become truly dominant in its home waters. In real terms, talk of freedom of navigation (or not) is simply a distraction, possibly to mask China's growing aspirations and belligerence. Dominating the local waters of the first chain of islands at least is vital for Beijing for two (so far largely unspoken) reasons. The first is about achieving military primacy in its home waters (and, concomitantly, its airspace), making it too dangerous for the United States to deploy the nearby 7th Fleet in any conflict over Taiwan or in war with China.
The second reason is acknowledged even less, but is arguably even more important. China possesses a significantly smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States. Survivability for any credible Chinese second-strike capability depends on nuclear-armed submarines which operate from Hainan. The United States currently patrols the waters of the South China Sea unimpeded, with the world's most advanced monitoring and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. To China’s great chagrin, the Pentagon constantly monitors submarine traffic from Hainan, collecting vital acoustic and operational intelligence.
But ultimately, it is perfectly possible that such grand strategic considerations and fears of a new 'Cold War' and nuclear Armageddon may be precisely the factors which prevent the China/US South China Sea issue (and potentially, the UAE-Iran Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands issue) from descending into conflict. In both cases, the rhetoric and posturing of nation states in their assertion of rival claims to islands often seems disproportionate to reality and to the scope of the disputes themselves. Perhaps this is because there is an element of safety in the conduct of island sovereignty disputes that is simply not present when disagreements are focused on contiguous land territory – the logistical difficulties of launching an offshore physical conflict mitigate against hasty action. This might, then, be a case of island disputes allowing for a venting of patriotic fervour in a relatively benign manner: on the understanding, of course, that all parties agree the 'rules of the game', ensuring no-one really takes the (albeit vehement) rhetoric seriously.
So, in the same way that the threat of 'mutually-assured destruction' of the West v Soviet Union nuclear arms race arguably prevented nuclear war in Europe in the 70s and 80s, it is suggested that again the threat of huge geo-strategic consequences resulting from any nation aggressively occupying disputed territory, or imposing sea and air passage limitations over artificially created land masses, is unthinkable and therefore offers a form of security in its own right.