Its current row with Vietnam in the South China Sea has alarmed many observers. But a similar spat with Japan shows that conflict isn’t inevitable.
The past year has been a difficult one for the coastal states of the South China Sea and there are number of indications that China’s decade long restraint is at an end. In 2010, rumours abounded that Beijing considered the South China Sea a ‘core interest,’ and China symbolically planted a flag on the seafloor (apparently mimicking Russian grandstanding in the Arctic). Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s hysterical response to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s restatement of US policy towards the dispute, meanwhile, seemed to be overkill.
The first half of 2011 has been similar. Chinese vessels, both civilian and government, have interfered with Philippine and Vietnamese survey activities in disputed waters, and Chinese vessels continue to fire at rival fishermen. This behaviour seems to confirm long-held suspicions about China’s posture towards the South China Sea; that as soon as China developed the military capability to dominate the South China Sea, it would. Now, following live fire exercises by Vietnam and as calls for greater military modernization grow in the Philippines, conflict in the South China Sea seems imminent.
However, we’ve seen this Chinese behaviour before, in the East China Sea, where China and Japan dispute the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the sea waters that surround them. Importantly, the escalation of tension in that dispute resulted in cooperation, not conflict. The dispute over energy resources began in earnest in 2004 after Japan discovered a Chinese drilling platform at the Chunxiao gas field, within 200 nautical miles of Japan’s coast, but just outside the median line that marked the limit of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone claim in its domestic law.
When it became apparent that commercially viable resources existed at Chunxiao, Tokyo insisted Beijing cease operations and jointly develop the field with Japan. To ascertain the extent of the undersea resources, Tokyo commissioned the Norwegian flagged Ramform Victory to conduct a thorough survey of the median line area near the Chunxiao field. During this survey, the Ramform Victory was stalked on several occasions by Chinese naval vessels and confronted on one occasion by a military vessel disguised as a research ship. Furthermore, in September 2005 a highly advanced Sovremennyy destroyer targeted a P3-C Orion patrol plane that passed over the Chunxiao field. As a consequence of these events, Japan galvanized its efforts to access resources in the East China Sea. Aerial patrols of the area increased and Tokyo backed away from its median line claim in favour of a full 200 nautical miles, awarded concession blocks adjacent to the median line to Teikoku Oil, and set about passing the laws required to protect Japanese oil companies working in the East China Sea.
Predictably, this resulted in histrionics from Beijing. Somewhat surprising however, was that as Japan set about preparing to drill for gas in the disputed area, negotiations between the two began to bear fruit. After the Diet passed the Law on Establishing Safety Areas for Maritime Structures in April 2007 – which permitted Japan to outline safety zones around drilling installations and tasked the coast guard with expelling vessels that violated these zones – negotiations occurred more frequently and yielded tangible results. Finally, in June 2008 the two sides announced a joint development arrangement that spelled out the sharing of resources at Chunxiao and outlined a joint development zone to the north that straddled the median line.
Photo Credit: US Defence Department