South China Sea and freedom of navigation: What’s at stake?

As China is building the artificial structures in South China Sea would you say it may lead to some restrictions in freedom of navigation? Could this issue lead to further escalation of the situation in South China Sea? Read few comments.

Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Freedom of navigation: Definitely, the Chinese artificial island building campaign in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and China’s more general military interests in the South China Sea have already imposed limits on the freedom of navigation and overflight, as these rights are defined by the United States. US reconnaissance planes were warned by the Chinese Navy when they flew near the disputed islands following on from the 2009 Impeccable  incident between the United States and China in the South China Sea and the 2001 EP-3 incident. The latest Chinese military warnings to the US over the new artificial islands suggest China is trying to claim territorial seas based on these artificial islands. The risk is much greater for the peaceful passage of military vessels and planes and fishing vessels from countries that dispute China’s South China Sea. There is little to no risk for non-fishing civilian vessels or planes.

Further escalation: China’s artificial island building and fortification campaign is a clear increase in the militarisation of the South China Sea and is a major unilateral escalation in itself. China’ nascent sea-based nuclear deterrent is based on Hainan island in the South China Sea. Further escalation in military tensions between the US and China and China and Japan in the South China Sea are very feasible as well as Chinese interests in gaining greater sea control over the 80% of the South China Sea, China (and Taiwan) claim.

Bonie GlaserSenior Adviser for Asia, Director, Project on Chinese Power, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Freedom of navigation is not the same thing as commercial shipping. It is unlikely that China would block commercial shipping, but it could hinder FON. If the Chinese claim 12nm territorial seas around formerly submerged reefs that have been built up into artificial islands, this would be a challenge to FON and a violation of UNCLOS. China might declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea and demand that all aircraft turn on transponders and communicate their intentions/flight path with China. Military aircraft would be unlikely to comply. This would pose a challenge to freedom of overflight. This could raise the risks of an accident. But much of this is speculation for the time being. China is very opaque about its plans.

Bill Hayton, Author of the Book: The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

The seven artificial islands that China has built have all been constructed on reefs that China has occupied for at least 20 years. China hasn’t occupied any new features recently – as far as we know. The other claimants disapprove of what China is doing because all sides signed a DECLARATION ON THE CONDUCT OF PARTIES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA in 2002 in which they agreed to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”. That’s a bit vague but it was supposed to cover things like building new islands.

Now that China has built runways and harbours it will have the ability to deploy much stronger forces in the southern part of the South China Sea and perhaps use those forces to intimidate the other claimants. It’s possible that China will use these forces China try to control parts of the sea – close to other countries’ coasts where there are thought to be oil or gas fields – the Reed Bank near the Philippines, Vanguard Bank near Vietnam and James Shoal and Luconia Shoal near Malaysia are the obvious possibilities.

The real problem is that China is refusing to stick to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS says islands have a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around them. If they are large enough to support human habitation they are entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone around them – which gives them the right to control fishing and oil exploration. The problem is that China is acting as if the whole sea inside its vast U-shaped line claim is part of its territorial sea. This is what the conflict is about – whose rules rule? Is it the rules that the rest of the world uses or is it the rules that China wants to impose on its neighbours.

This is why the US and China could come into conflict – not over who owns which reef but over the rules that govern the sea.

Bernt Berger, Senior Research Fellow/Head of Asia Program, Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP)

Overall there are no indicators that this development will lead to restrictions for commercial shipping and sea-lanes of communication. Rather the likelihood of confrontation between the navies is rising particularly between Chinese positions and US reconnaissance. The question is whether both sides accept this as a part of reestablishing a new status quo or if mutual provocations lead to a more serious situation. The latter would be in no ones interest and might also lead to problems for commercial shipping.

Jonathan Holslag, Postdoctoral Fellow, Vrije University, Brussels

The Chinese government has promised to respect FoN in the South China Sea, but there are two important exceptions: the territorial waters claimed around the enlarged islands and the access of foreign military vessels to the 200 miles zone. China thinks that the the international sea law permits it to deny access to foreign navy ships.


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