The past four weeks saw the swiftest escalation in recent years of tensions over the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific.
The tensions spiraled in late November when the province of Hainan, in the southern coastal region of China, issued an imperial-sounding edict that its so-called lawmaking body had authorized its police patrol boats to board and search foreign ships of any nationality that illegally enter what it considers Chinese territories in the South China Sea. The plan was announced to take effect on short notice: on Jan. 1.
The edict caused considerable alarm among China’s smaller neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, all of whom have overlapping claims on islands in portions of the South China Sea, which China has claimed as exclusively belonging to it on the strength of ancient maps. It also caused consternation among other world powers such as the United States and India, which do not have territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and through which more than half of the globe’s oil tanker traffic passes. The concern of the United States and India, both of which have powerful navies to challenge China’s aggressive assertion of its hegemonic ambitions, involves freedom of navigation and trade routes in the entire China Sea.
The new rules emanating from Hainan will allow its local police—not China’s navy—to seize control of foreign ships that “illegally enter” Chinese waters and order them to change course. The determination of what is illegal is left entirely in the hands of the Hainan authorities. What has affronted the rest of the world is this arbitrary exercise by China to enforce its territorial claims while intimidating its weaker neighbors with threats of its expanding naval power.
The rules shocked China’s neighbors so powerfully because these were issued, not by a democratic political system, but by a provincial government, and was addressed to rival claimants of disputed territories in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea, most of which are democracies. These rival claimants are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
The Hainan decision empowering its border police to intercept foreign ships sailing in waters claimed by China as its territory, which also overlaps territories in the South China Sea, affronts other claimants because it is seen as condescending and treating them as vassal states of the suzerain province.
There are now questions raised over whether the new rules were handed down at the instigation of the central Chinese government in Beijing or were initiated by the Hainan provincial government. Whatever is the source of the initiative, the new rules have galvanized countries affected by it to call for a clarification. The rules have accelerated the spiraling of tensions close to a flashpoint, of armed confrontation between Chinese gunboats and those of smaller countries whose ships are being intercepted even in waters claimed by them.
Under the new rules, Hainanese patrols are to prowl the seas far beyond the “baseline” of China’s 12-nautical-mile zone, which is allowed archipelagic countries. The Philippines has joined other nations in a coalition calling for clarification. A report in the Wall Street Journal said experts were unclear how the rules would be applied in practice. According to the report, Wu Sichun, the director of the foreign affairs office of Hainan province, who is also president of the National Institute for South China Sea, gave a narrow interpretation of the regulations.
He said the main purpose was to deal with Vietnamese fishing boats operating in waters near Yonxing Islands in the Paracels, which China calls the Xisha Island.
Wu said the regulations applied to waters around islands which announced “baselines.” He said the baseline is the low-water line along the coast from which countries measure their territorial waters, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Wu also said the rules allowed police to check and expel vessels that will enter, or conduct illegal activity within, the 12 nautical miles of the islands for which China has announced baselines. It is not clear how this rules apply. The problem is that the Chinese are handing down their set of rules, interpreting these at their own convenience, and enforcing these with their own police patrols.
With their unilateral interventions, they have decreed a new law of the sea without the consent of the users of the sea. What worries us is: What happens when the boats they intercept are our gunboats patrolling our own national territory also claimed by China? That can be an act of war. We are on the brink of gunboat diplomacy.