It seems that China, or at least part of it, has thrown down the gauntlet in the South China Sea with the announcement that police in the southern island province of Hainan will board and search ships which enter what China considers its territory in the disputed waters.Before discussing the implications of the “revised regulations,” it’s helpful to know why China thinks it can commandeer the territory in the first place. In October James R. Holmes of NamViet News cited the book “How Communists Negotiate” to note that going into negotiations “Chinese communists try to rig the game in their favour” by trying to force the opposite side to agree to Beijing’s bargaining positions as a condition for convening talks.
China’s currently claims everything within the “nine-dashed line” – which takes in about 90 per cent of the South China Sea – and now its law enforcement will act to defend it.
In August the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China stated: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters. This is supported by clear historical facts.”
(Note: A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks reported that a senior Chinese government maritime law expert “admitted” he was unaware of the historical basis for the nine dashes.)
China’s stance makes diplomacy difficult since negotiation, as Holmes notes, “presupposes give-and-take between two parties. But indisputable means indisputable.”
Consequently, the Hainan decree raises the stakes in the region’s territorial disputes and creates immediate problems for other claimant countries as well as the world economy.
As James Fallows of the Atlantic points out, “Brunei is a very long way from mainland China, but China contends that its waters reach practically down to Brunei’s shores.”
He also notes that some of the affected shipping lanes “have nothing directly to do with mainland China” since export paths from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan pass through the waters on their way to the Indian Ocean while half the world’s oil-cargo traffic from the Middle East travels the route in the opposite way.
Yesterday Dr. Ely Ratner, a Fellow at the centre for a New American Security, told BI that the situation is “an incredibly difficult problem” that will come down to how far China is willing to go in terms of getting out on the high seas and arresting fishermen and others who think they’re within their rights to be in the disputed waters.
China will dictate how heated things get, but there’s no doubt that the Red Dragon is aggressively staking out its position.
“It is easy to imagine things becoming dangerous, quickly, if the new Chinese administration actually tries to carry out this order,” Fallows wrote. “A Chinese government deliberately courting this kind of showdown would be a very bad sign.”
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