Chinese Territorial Assertions —- The Case of the Mischief Reef

China has on-going disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei regarding conflicting claims of sovereignty over different islands in the Spratly group in the South China Sea, but its assertion of its claim over the Mischief Reef at the expense of the Philippines is an educative case study of how China doggedly pursues its irredentist territorial claims – by stealth, if possible, and by other means, including force, if necessary. The Spratly group consists of 12 main islands and 390 islets, banks, reefs, shoals and cays, of which only 33 permanently rise above the sea and only seven of these have an area of more than 0.5 sq.kms. The islands and other features lie in an area of about 400 nautical miles from East to West and about 500 nautical miles from North to South. The sea areas contained by these features constitute about 38 per cent of the South China Sea. According to legal experts, the 33 features, which are permanently above the sea, would be entitled, under international law, to have 12 nautical miles of territorial sea, while 26 of these could have Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf claims. None of the other features could have any such entitlement since they are not permanently above the sea. Widely conflicting estimates of huge oil and gas deposits in the area, which could make it as rich as the Kuwait region , are yet to be proved by exploration. Amongst those to have made such claims are the Chinese Ministry for Geology and Mineral Resources (oil and gas reserves of 17.7 billion tonnes as against Kuwait’s 13 billion tonnes), some scientists of the Russian Research Institute of Geology of Foreign Countries (at least 10 billion tonnes) , Ji Guoxing, Director of the Asia-Pacific Department of the Shanghai Institute For International Studies (10 billion tonnes of oil and 25 billion cubic metres of gas) and the book (author anonymous)” Can China’s Armed Forces Win The Next War?” ( 35 billion tonnes) . Amongst the skeptics doubting these estimates is E.F.Durkee, General Manager of the E.F.Durkee and Associates of Manila, who had worked as technical adviser to the Crestone Energy Corporation of the US during its negotiations with Beijing in 1992 on exploration rights. Durkee wrote in the “Far Eastern Economic Review” of March 9,1995, as follows: ” Though media and politicians love to talk about oil in the Spratlys, there is not one shred of evidence to support the claim. Other than a small amount of gas and a few barrels of condensate produced at Sampaquita 1 and 3A in 1976 in the Reed Bank within Philippine territory, there have been no reported hydrocarbons ever produced from the Spratly islands area. If the objective is gas and oil, the Spratlys are hardly worth the risk of war.” Many analysts are agreed that prospects of oil and gas are not the main motive for the Chinese policy with regard to the Spratlys. A more important factor is China’s irredentist impulse and its desire to prevent any sea-borne threat to South China from the South China Sea. Its irredentist motives are evident from its description of the islands as historically having belonged to China and its description of the South China Sea as “China’s historical waters.” Its readiness to use force to protect its rights was reflected in the debate on the passage of the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone” in the National People’s Congress in February,1992. During the debate, the Chinese authorities reiterated China’s historic claim over the entire Spratly group and underlined China’s right to use force to evict any “trespassers”. China has been pursuing a policy of calculated ambiguity. It has never spelt out in detail what exactly it claims – only some islands or all the islands, the South China Sea itself as its territorial waters, does it look upon the Spratlys as an archipelago belonging to it ? If so, what happens to the air and sea navigation rights of other countries ? The absence of clear-cut answers to these vital questions has added to the concerns of not only the regional countries, but also others outside the region. Before 1994, China followed a two-pronged policy in the assertion of its claims. In asserting its claims vis-à-vis Vietnam, it used polemics, often accompanied or followed by ground action to enforce its claims. Vis-à-vis the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, it restricted itself mostly to verbal reiteration of its claims without any ground action to the detriment of these countries. This was the period ( particularly in the 1980s), when the Philippines still had close military relations with the US with the latter enjoying base facilities in the Philippines, China was developing its economy for which it was dependent on investment flows from the overseas Chinese of the region , it was trying to strengthen its relations with the ASEAN countries and allay their fears of China and the prevailing atmosphere in the US was still strongly distrustful of China. The Chinese leadership was still scrupulously adhering to Deng Xiao-Ping’s 1989 advice to “fear no one, antagonise no one, avoid excessively provocative statements or actions, assume a low profile and don’t take the lead.” The post-1994 period has seen a more confident China aware of its growing economic and military strength and willing to use that strength in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives. This confidence has been bolstered by the toning down of the anti-China reflexes of the US Administration – though not yet of the Congress – and by the recent weakening of the economies of the ASEAN countries and its impact on their military capability. This new-found confidence has been reflected in the Chinese readiness to advance their claims vis-à-vis the Philippines by ground action too, if necessary, unmindful of adverse international reactions. In the last week of January,1995, the Captain of a Filipino fishing boat reported to the Manila authorities that some Chinese, who had occupied the Mischief Reef claimed by the Philippines, had detained him and his boat when he went there for fishing and released them after a week. Subsequently, the Mayor of the Pag-asa island confirmed the presence of the Chinese and reported that when he went there , as ordered by Manila, for verification, his boat was driven away by some Chinese ships stationed there. On February 2,1995, the Filipino Government sent a naval ship and an aircraft for verification. Thereafter, the then President Fidel Ramos announced on February 5,1995, that the Chinese had illegally occupied the Reef and described their action as inconsistent with international law and principles of good relations. He also announced that Manila was lodging a protest with Beijing. Reacting to Manila’s allegations, Chen Jian, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said: ” Structures had been built on the Reef by China to ensure the safety and lives as well as the production operations of the fishermen who work in the waters of the Nansha ( Spratly) Islands. The Chinese side never detained nor arrested any Filipino ship nor established any military base on the Meiji (Mischief) Reef.” Nguyen Manh Cam, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, was on a visit to Manila when Ramos announced the Chinese occupation of the Reef. Without specifically referring to the Reef, a joint Filipino-Vietnamese statement on February 6,1995, urged restraint and the Vietnamese Minister told Manila pressmen that the dispute should be settled peacefully and that “no one should do anything to make the situation more complex.” Roberto Romulo, the then Filipino Foreign Secretary, said: ” Whoever resorts to force or aggression in that area is the first one who loses all moral and legal right to make a claim.” The Chinese action created alarm amongst the ASEAN member-countries because this was the first time that China had unilaterally changed the status quo at the expense of a claimant other than Vietnam and covertly established its presence in waters and in an area claimed by the Philippines as falling within its Exclusive Economic Zone. The Mischief Reef, which the Philippines calls the Panganiban Reef, is 150 miles West of Palawan, the Philippines’ nearest land mass, and 620 miles South-East of China. The Pag-asa island of the Spratly group, which is under the administrative control of the Philippines since 1973, is 135 kms to the North-West of the Reef. On February 15,1995, Ramos ordered the strengthening of Filipino military forces in the remaining areas claimed by his country and the intensification of aerial surveillance over the area. After a meeting of his National Security Council the same day, he said that the Philippines would exhaust all diplomatic options and added: ” As part of this diplomatic effort, the Philippines has put forward as an interim measure the concept of stewardship. Each disputed island should be placed under the stewardship, meaning the primary responsibility, of the claimant country closest to it geographically, on the understanding that the steward country accommodates the other claimants’ need for shelter, anchorage and other peaceful pursuits.” In an apparent attempt to project the issue as a multilateral problem, Ramos said that “the issue is of concern to all countries interested in the long-term stability of the South China Sea and the East Asian region as a whole.” According to him, by building military structures on the Reef, China had unilaterally changed the status quo and confronted the Philippines with a fait accompli. He also revealed that in response to Manila’s protest, Beijing had claimed that the occupation of the Reef was ” ordered by low-level functionaries acting without the knowledge and consent of the Chinese Government.” This gave rise to speculation that the PLA (Navy) might have acted on its own without the knowledge of the political leadership, but this wasproved wrong by a statement of Qian Qichen, the then Chinese Foreign Minister, on March 10,1995, which clearly showed that the political leadership approved of the occupation. He said: ” Ours is not a military activity and will pose no threat to other countries. Chinese fishermen have been traditionally fishing in the region and shelters have been built to protect them. China has had sovereignty over the islands since ancient times and there were no disputes. Just in the late 70s, some countries made claims over the islands. China has shown restraint and is willing to develop the region in a co-operative way, setting aside disputes.” A team of Filipino officials led by Rodolfo Severino, Under Secretary in the Foreign Office, was sent by Ramos to Beijing for talks with the Chinese authorities on March 22,1995. On his way, Severino went to Singapore for meeting his ASEAN counterparts. They issued a joint statement expressing ” their serious concern over recent developments which affect peace and stability in the South China Sea.” The Beijing talks failed. Severino said after the talks: ” The Chinese continued to maintain their position that these structures are wind shelters for their fishermen. We believe that this has set back the moves towards confidence-building since 1990.” Commenting on the failure, Ramos said on March 23,1995: ” They (the Chinese) are saying , we are a big country and if we are trying to send some additional ships, that is for our coastal defence. But, maybe, that should not just be taken as a simple explanation. Maybe, it could be used for South China Sea intervention. But, I hope they stay within what they are telling us.” After the failure of the Beijing talks, the Filipino Navy removed the markers on a number of reefs, atolls and other features in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone which had been put up by the Chinese though they had not set up any physical presence on those features. It also started intercepting Chinese fishing boats intruding into the Filipino zone. Reacting to this, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Office, warned at Beijing: ” This action will do no good to a settlement of the issue nor will it harm China’s sovereignty.” In an interview to the “Far Eastern Economic Review” of April 6,1995, Ramos said: ” I will not hesitate to take the necessary protective measures for our territory.” At the instance of China, a meeting of Chinese and ASEAN Foreign Office officials was held at Hangzhou in China on April 3-4, 1995, to discuss measures for reducing tension. Rodolfo Severino, who represented the Philippines, claimed after the meeting that Chinese officials said for the first time that they were planning to modify their claims to ownership , not of the entire sea, but only of the islands, reefs and other physical features in the sea. He then pointed out: ” Under international law, a country can claim sovereignty over the waters 200 kms from its land. The territorial claims around one reef, for instance, would still overlap with our territorial boundary and some of them would come very, very close to Palawan.” Qian Qichen, who was in Europe at the time of the Hangzhou meeting, told pressmen at Bratislava on April 4,1995, that China wanted to end the controversy and called for common use of the islands. He added: ” China’s standpoint is that we want to abandon the controversy and manage the islands together. China has built on these islands civilian structures with no military character at all. They were built only to accommodate the work of our fishermen.” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore was in China on a bilateral visit in May,1995. According to the Singapore authorities, he had raised with the then Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng on May 11,1995, the question of sovereignty and navigation in the South China Sea and they had discussed whether sovereignty covered not only sea lanes, but also the air space. While the Singapore officials did not indicate what was the Chinese response, the Xinhua news agency quoted Shen, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry,as stating as follows on May 18,1995: ” On the issue of the navigation rights in the South China Sea, the Chinese Government holds a definite and clear-cut position, namely, China’s action to safeguard its sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and the relevant maritime rights and interests will not affect navigation through and the freedom and safety of flights over the international waterway of the South China Sea in keeping with the international laws.” There was fresh tension on May 13,1995, when the Filipino Defence Ministry officials arranged a visit to the vicinity of the Mischief Reef on board a naval vessel for a party of 38 local and foreign journalists. The aim was to show them that contrary to its stand that there were no military structures on the Reef, China was actually constructing military-like fortifications on the Reef similar to those which it had constructed in the past on the Johnson and Subi reefs. When the Filipino naval ship was 10 kms from the Mischief Reef, two Chinese frigates from the direction of the Johnson Reef , about 100 kms to the West, blocked its passage. On May 15,1995, Guan Deng-Min, the new Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, handed over to Ramos a letter from President Jiang Zemin proposing that China and the Philippines jointly develop some of the Spratly islands and undertake projects such as research, environment protection, rescue operations, disaster prevention and fisheries. A Manila Foreign Office spokesman said that Ramos told the Ambassador that talks on any such projects should include other claimants too. Apparently, Jiang’s conciliatory letter had been sent from Beijing before the incident of May 13,1995, because on May 16,1995, Beijing reacted strongly to Manila’s action in taking journalists to the vicinity of the Mischief Reef. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that ” any similar action could result in serious consequences. We advise the other side not to misinterpret China’s restraint, but , instead, to return to the correct path of negotiations to resolve the dispute.” When the Mischief Reef dispute came to the fore in February, 1995, the Clinton Administration reacted cautiously and confined itself to a reiteration of its long-standing policy on the South China Sea. The State Department said: ” The US strongly opposes the threat or use of military force to assert any nation’s claim. The US takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims and is willing to assist in the peaceful resolution of the dispute.” On instructions from Manila, the Filipino Embassy in Washington contacted many Congressmen and lobbied for a stronger expression of US support. In response to this, in March,1995, Benjamin Gilman, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, tabled a resolution warning China against using force or intimidation in the Spratly area. The resolution added that the ” right of free passage through the South China Sea is in the national security interests of the US” and called on Clinton to review the defence requirements of the ” democratic claimants.” Gilman said: ” In order to avoid a future confrontation that we might lose, we had better shore up the defences of our democratic friends and allies in the region.” In a slightly stronger reaction on May 10,1995, the State Department said: ” The US would view with serious concern any maritime claim or restriction on maritime activity in the South China Sea that was not consistent with international law.” Later, while talking to pressmen at Tokyo , Joseph Nye, then US Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security, said : ” If military action occurred in the Spratlys and this interfered with the freedom of the seas, then we would be prepared to escort and make sure that navigation continues.” The Spratly islands are strewn across sea routes through which 25 per cent of the world’s shipping passes, including oil supertankers for Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. A Pentagon study explained the US position as follows: ” The US takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims. Our strategic interest in maintaining the lines of communication linking South-East Asia, North-East Asia and the Indian Ocean makes it essential that we resist any maritime claims beyond those permitted by the Law of the Sea Convention.” The dispute became the subject of intense discussions by various experts in the US, including a series of panel discussions organised by the Congressionally-funded US Institute of Peace. The views of the experts could be summed up as follows: (a).Energy requirement was not China’s principal motive. The need to make foreigners recognise its sovereignty was a more important factor. Even if China did not need the oil and gas of the South China Sea, its position may not change. (b).In Chinese perception, control over the South China Sea would constitute effective forward defence against intrusions that had historically come from the Southern seas. They view the South China Sea as a necessary component of an inner defence zone against military intervention from the South-East. The thrust of China’s rapid reaction ground forces is primarily towards Southern China. ( c ). The Chinese policy enjoyed the support of the political leadership and was not the result of rogue action by the PLA as believed by some. (d).China’s continued dependence on foreign investment flows would rule out any adventurist action to enforce its claims in the near future. (e).In Chinese perception, time was on their side and re-unification of Taiwan was a more important priority and they could, therefore, afford to wait. There were two significant developments in July,1995. Before the meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at Brunei, Ali Alatas, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, visited Beijing on July 19,1995, to discuss the South China Sea developments. Thiswas the first visit by an Indonesian Foreign Minister to China since the two countries restored diplomatic relations in 1990 . Towards the end of July,1995, a contingent of US navy commandos arrived at Puerto Princesa, the headquarters of the Philippines Western Military Command, to train Filipino troops stationed in the Spratly group islands under its control. A joint study was undertaken of Manila’s defence requirements in the light of the new situation in the South China Sea and as to what extent the US could meet them. A proposal was mooted by a group of Filipino Congressmen, including Jose de Venecia, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, that the Philippines should again invite US naval ships in the region to come to the Subic Bay for repairs and re-fitting. The Ramos Government did not, however, accept it. These indications of a possible revival of active military co-operation between the US and the Philippines seemed to have had a sobering effect on Beijing. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers, who had gathered at Brunei for the ARF meeting from July 28 to August 1,1995, were pleasantly surprised to find Qian Qichen giving indications of less rigidity. Firstly, he expressed China’s readiness to discuss the issue with all the ASEAN claimants , thereby reversing its previous insistence that it would discuss this only bilaterally with each claimant. Secondly, while reiterating China’s claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys, he indicated that China would be willing to recognise international laws, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, as a basis for settling the differences. At the same time, he opposed the involvement of non-ASEAN outside powers in the negotiations. Commenting on this, Domingo Siazon, the then Filipino Foreign Secretary, said: ” I would not call it a concession. However, I think China is now having a position of opening the door to a possible political compromise. That was not the case when claims were based only on historical rights.” Ali Alatas said: ” On the basis of the UN Law of the Seas, there is no more guessing how you draw lines for an Exclusive Economic Zone or a continental shelf. There are no more disputes over what are considered the lines of an archipelago state.” A US State Department spokesman said: ” The tone of China referring to international law and the Law of the Seas gives greater possibility of trying to find a diplomatic solution, even though China hasn’t changed its fundamental position on its sovereignty claims.” In a further positive development, Manila and Beijing announced on August 10,1995, that they had reached a “Code of Conduct” for resolving their dispute peacefully. They stated that while joint review committees would be set up under the Code to review possibilities for joint development and management of the islands, China would be setting up a panel to review “legal rights” to the islands. However, China declined to sign the protocol to the Agreement on the Creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in South-East Asia which was concluded at the ASEAN summit at Bangkok in the second week of December,1995.. Its objection was to the inclusion of the Exclusive Economic Zone/continental shelf claim areas of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam in the Treaty area. China thereby made it apparent that its agreement to discuss the Spratly issue with the ASEAN members on the basis of the Law of the Seas and other international laws should not lead to an assumption that it had accepted or would accept the claims of these four ASEAN countries. The matter rested there during 1996 and 1997, without any significant forward movement in resolving the dispute. In 1996, China was preoccupied with its confrontation with Taiwan and its sequel. This and the various controversies regarding possible flow of Chinese political contributions during the US elections of 1996 revived the distrust of China in the US. However, since the middle of 1997, China has managed to improve its image in the US and Clinton’s visit to China last year marked the implicit recognition by the Clinton administration of China’s political primacy in this region. The weakening of the economies of the ASEAN countries and its impact on their military capability and political stability , the emergence of signs of differences amongst the ASEAN member-countries on various issues and the preoccupation of the usually China-hostile conservative members of the US Congress with the impeachment of Clinton constitute the setting against which one has to see the renewed activism of China in the South China Sea since October,1998. In the last week of October,1998, a Filipino military surveillance aircraft reportedly noticed many Chinese ships, including four naval supply ships, off the Mischief Reef , with about 100 workers busy constructing what the Filipino authorities suspected was a landing strip for aircraft. Rejecting Manila’s allegations of construction of new military structures on the Reef, Beijing claimed that it was only replacing the temporary shelters for fishermen constructed in 1995 with permanent ones. President Joseph Estrada announced on November 10,1998,that he was sending additional forces into the area to monitor the Chinese activities and instructed the Navy and the Air Force “to block exit and entry points” to the disputed area without getting involved in a military confrontation. A spokesman of the Philippines Government announced on November 30,1998, that their Navy had seized six Chinese fishing boats in Filipino waters and arrested 20 fishermen. Manila rejected a Chinese demand for the release of the fishermen and said they would be prosecuted for trespassing into Filipino territorial waters. During a tour of the East Asian region in the beginning of December,1998, Admiral Joseph Prueher, Commander of the US forces in the Pacific, said that the US was closely watching the developments and added: ” If nations feel like they have a strong card to play, they will try to do it, when they think they can get away with it. This is perhaps what China is trying to do in the Mischief Reef.” Apart from this, in contrast to 1995, there has hardly been any strong reaction either from the US or from other ASEAN countries preoccupied with their economic and social problems. Dr. Mahatir Mohammad of Malaysia has apparently not forgiven Estrada for sympathising with Anwar Ibrahim, his sacked Deputy Prime Minister. China had contributed to Thailand’s rescue package in 1997 and hence Bangkok was not in a position to react. Anyhow, even in 1995, Bangkok avoided strong reactions. Singapore seems to be skeptical of the allegations of Manila and declines to see Beijing’s fresh activity as encouraged by the preoccupation of the ASEAN countries with their economic woes. Thus, the only important foreign personality who has strongly come out against Beijing so far is US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee. After flying over the area in a Filipino aircraft on December 10,1998, he described the fresh Chinese activities in the Reef as alarming and sinister and strongly condemned the silence of the Clinton Administration on the development. Latest reports indicate that China has gone back on its 1995 promise to discuss the dispute with all the ASEAN claimants and has reverted to its original stand that it would discuss only bilaterally with each claimant. It seems to be even dragging its feet on its 1995 proposals for joint development of the disputed islands. Expressing the frustration of the Manila authorities, Blas Ople, Chairman of the Philippines Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview to the “Newsweek” of December 21,1998: ” Great powers, very often, probe for soft spots. They determine whether they can make some gains at very little or negligible cost. Throughout history, that is how great powers have conducted themselves. China is no different.” ((14 JAN 1999))





The Spratly Islands —- Probably the most complicated international situation on the planet.













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