The Limits of China as Villain


China is usually typecast as the villain in the Asia-Pacific’s security dramas, and the recent confrontations in the South China Sea have been no different. The narrative has revolved around an aggressive China that has recklessly pushed the envelope of its territorial claims, steamrolling its weaker neighbours and jeopardising regional stability.

China’s actions and miscommunications have indeed contributed to the growing discordance of the security mood music, with the Philippines and Vietnam in particular genuinely alarmed about the assertiveness – veering perhaps between aggression and plain clumsiness – which China has been displaying in the disputed zones of the South China Sea.

But that’s only part of the story: Asia’s maritime difficulties are above all a collective failure. Between them, the region’s stakeholders have succeeded only in exposing the dangerous weakness of their multilateral institutions. These platforms, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) among them, are struggling to regulate the behaviour of their members and develop meaningful controls over the region’s security. This is because competing interests, rather than common purpose, continue to dominate regional thinking, even within ASEAN. It can also partly be explained by the enduring presence of one very successful, unilateral security institution in the Pacific region: the United States military.

The crisis of Asian multilateralism was played out very publicly at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, which was held in Singapore in early June and where the region’s maritime disputes – and how best to resolve them – were one of two topics that dominated the agenda. The other, very much related to the first, was whether the United States would sustain its military presence in Asia.

Asian leaders seem to have given up trying to create new institutions to fix these problems. The ideas of the last two to do so, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, fizzled along with their premierships and were quietly dropped by their respective governments. ‘There is no appetite for new institutions,’ says Tim Huxley, the director of IISS-Asia, the think tank that organises the Dialogue. ‘What we heard was a reassertion of interest in using the existing, ASEAN-centric institutions, but with that come really quite major problems for the region.’

The biggest challenge of ASEAN-centrism is that ASEAN itself has been fractious in recent months, as a result of both the ongoing Thai-Cambodian confrontation and also of individual members pursuing their conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, for example, has seized on the maritime dispute as enthusiastically as Bangkok has played up its skirmishes with the Cambodians in order draw some of the heat away from domestic troubles (in Hanoi’s case, these are economic). Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told The Diplomat in Singapore ‘that ASEAN, despite all the security challenges it has gone through, has consistently progressed towards achieving the status of ASEAN Political-Security by Community 2015.’

August 23, 2013 at 12:01

China's claim is excessive. Hitler did that before.

May 9, 2012 at 21:59

@Zhou, before you do so; giving us your textbook, try understanding and excerpt what is the content before blurring us with your superficial reasoning. if south china sea is owned by china, then who owned the pacific? part of it could be of the Philippines facing the pacific, or if your basis would be the ancient map of china, perhaps you should consider first being a Mongolian as china has been part of Mongolian empire according to the ancient map… you were owned by Mongolia… as for the bilateral negotiation, you can have the spratly, considering that your sovereignty returns to Mongolia…

May 9, 2012 at 21:19

It’s true, it’s what China desires, to rule over south east Asian nations and with regards to the Spratly disputes, clearly the China’s meaning and interpretation of bilateral law and/or agreement is, to summoned the surrounding country in south east Asia one by one and kiss their hand, proclaiming their might…

May 3, 2012 at 23:04

If ASEAN cant act on this, this means its a lame duck!!! They cant reach an agreement on which side to stand. They cant event unite to take a strategy on how to face China on its assertiveness in South China Sea. Its better for the Philippine government to review its foreign policy on whether it will continue to participate in the ASEAN….

May 2, 2012 at 10:14

This is what I’ve been saying all along, that, the current chinese generation are already contaminated with Opium. Sooner or later, one that belong to the current generation of China, will claim that the Chinatown in New York City, U.S.A. is part of China based on the so-called ‘indisputable sovereignty’ and ‘core interest’. Chinese are increasingly delirious by claiming all properties that do not belong to them. They will invent stories that ‘historically’ a property is theirs and based the claim on some misplaced fortune cookie ‘nine dash line’ map printed by some chinese triad based in Hongkong.

December 13, 2011 at 13:55

And Washington should return America to its native Indians, and the same with Australia and its “aborigines”.

October 6, 2011 at 23:48

To Sino Defender: Don’t think that as a newly and strong China will let you consider the China as a new world power. If you support China, You of all people always bully small countries. Why would you claim the Philippine’s Spratly’s Islands “WITHIN THEIR EXCLUSIVE ECONOMIC ZONE” as marked and signed by the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Seas.

September 14, 2011 at 01:09

go and read history… if it were just that simple. What if we read (or study) Vietnam’s history, or The Philippines history??? You think those people weren’t exploring or fishing in their own waters? Besides, if you read China’s history, you will see that for most of it they didn’t pay much attention to the sea and events beyond their borders.

July 23, 2011 at 04:44

China’s ‘Two No’s Policy’ on South China Sea disputes

By Phieu Le And Huy Duong

[The authors’ original title of this article is “The South China Sea disputes: Behind China’s ‘two no’s policy.”

Phieu Le is a doctoral candidate in International Law at the University of Montesquieu, France. Huy Duong is a freelance writer. They contribute articles on the South China Sea disputes to the BBC and Vietnam’s online publication VietNamNet.]

China has always insisted that the South China Sea disputes be dealt with through bilateral negotiations and has developed a “two nos” policy regarding the settlement of disputes in the South China Sea: no multilateral negotiations and no “internationalization”.

Increasingly, the South East Asian claimants and the US are arguing for multilateral solutions. In response, China maintains that the disputes should be settled via bilateral negotiations, attacks what it sees as the “internationalization” of the issue, and has condemned the US stance.

Island disputes: Bilateral or multilateral negotiations?
The Spratlys are claimed wholly or partly by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and China (whose position is shared by Taiwan), so this dispute is multilateral by definition. As such, the Spratlys dispute requires a multilateral solution involving all the claimants.

Bilateral negotiations are not an appropriate mechanism for resolving multilateral disputes: if the Philippines and Vietnam were to negotiate and settle bilaterally the sovereignty over the Spratlys, would China accept that as a solution?

So why does China insist on bilateral negotiations as the only mechanism to resolve the Spratlys dispute, despite the fact that this mechanism could not be expected to bring about a settlement? Behind this insistence is a two-pronged strategy.

First, if the South East Asian claimants deal with China individually, they will be more likely to succumb one by one to China’s superior strength than if they have a common strategy, a united stance and mutual support for each other.

Second, by insisting on an unsuitable approach, China is effectively blocking progress towards a negotiated settlement. The absence of a settlement gives China, as the strongest claimant by far, increasing opportunities to strengthen its position and weaken those of the others.

Maritime Disputes: Internationalization or De-internationalization?
While the question of sovereignty over the islands is central to the South China Sea dispute, in practice it is maritime disputes that are most likely to spark off conflicts. The events of Chinese naval ships threatening the Philippines’ seismic survey vessel at the Reed Bank and China’s unilateral fishing bans in the South China Sea are but examples of this.

Maritime disputes should be resolved according to international law, especially the stipulations of the United Nations Convention on The Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the jurisprudence rendered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

According to UNCLOS, a coastal state has sovereignty only over territorial sea within 12 nautical miles wide adjacent to its baselines.

With respect to maritime zones beyond 12 nautical miles, that state does not have sovereignty, but only some specific rights under the regimes of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. In addition, under judgments by the ICJ, small islands such as those in the South China Sea are entitled to EEZs and continental shelves that are insignificant in comparison to those of neighboring territories that have longer coastlines.

If a nation claims either too large a maritime zone, or too many rights, or both, for an EEZ or a continental shelf, then that adversely affects the rights of all other nations in the world.

China’s maritime claim in the South China Sea involves an enigmatic U-shaped line that lies well beyond 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands and encircles most of this body of water. This claim adversely affects the rights of all other states.

The U-shaped line: a claim excessive in area
First, let’s consider whether this line can be consistent with the extent of an EEZ and continental shelf belonging to the Paracels and Spratlys.

That line lies beyond the equidistance line between the disputed islands and the territories around the South China Sea. Jurisprudence by the International Court of Justice always gives such small islands EEZs or continental shelves that fall far short of the equidistance line, usually not much father than 12 nautical miles from the islands.

Pursuant to these rules, the U-shaped line is too excessive and arbitrary to be justified as the Paracels and Spratlys’ EEZ and continental shelf boundary. Consequently, the maritime zone around Reed Bank rightfully belongs to the Philippines; the area around James Shoal to Malaysia; the Natuna region to Indonesia; the maritime zones around Nam Con Son and the Vanguard Bank to Vietnam. These delimitations are incontestable regardless of the fact that the Paracels and Spratlys and Scarborough Shoals are disputed.

Furthermore, the U-shaped line covers an area in the middle of the South China Sea where the international community might well have the right to exploit economically the column of water, for example, to fish.

Thus, that line encircles an excessive area, adversely affecting the rights of the nations entitled to EEZs and continental shelves in the South China Sea, as well as those of the international community.
To justify such extensive claim, Beijing would have to adduce the status of historic sovereignty and rights over maritime space.

However, UNCLOS only recognizes historic sovereignty and rights over maritime space within 12 nautical miles of baselines, not over the area enclosed by the U-shaped line. As a signatory to UNCLOS, China must respect this rule and cannot allege historic sovereignty and rights over maritime space in order to justify the U-shaped line. In addition, there is no evidence that China has historical sovereignty over the maritime space enclosed by that line.

The U-shaped line: a claim opaque in legal status
Next, let’s consider the U-shaped line in terms of what rights, under international law, China intends to claim for it.

So far, China has been opaque about this claim. This “Middle State” [Editor’s note: Another translation of the ancient name for China are “the Middle Kingdom.”] has never stated exactly what rights it is claiming inside that line, even when it included a map showing the U-shaped line with its note verbale to the United Nations in 2009 to protest against continental shelf submissions by Vietnam and Malaysia.

Whether China claims the maritime space within the U-shaped line as EEZ and continental shelf, or as a maritime zone similar to “historic waters,” such claim is a threat to the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. In addition, it affects considerably the rights of the international community, because UNCLOS grants rights within this body of water to all nations in the world.

The U-shaped line: an international issue
The U-shaped line is like a dagger pointing at the heart of the South China Sea without the holder giving any explanation or saying how he intends to use it. Supported by an increasingly powerful navy, it constitutes a threat to all nations in the world.

While the international community can be neutral on the disputes over the islands, it cannot afford to be neutral on China’s U-shaped line.
Both maritime history and UNCLOS show that the South China Sea is an international sea, like the Mediterranean. The international community has an interest and the right to have a say in the maritime claims there. China’s opposition to the “internationalization” of the South China Sea issue is tantamount to an attempt to de-internationalize an international sea. Once the South China Sea has been de-internationalized, Beijing will be able to bring its strength to bear on the South East Asian nations and impose its own rules on this body of wate

July 17, 2011 at 10:40

“the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.”
–Samuel P. Huntington

July 15, 2011 at 15:46

I think China taking the claim is more symbolic to show Western countries and any other who angered China that China is not the same China during the Opium wars.

July 14, 2011 at 21:52

China cannot rely its development on some uninhabitable islets.

July 14, 2011 at 11:25

We will never speak Mandarin, simply because it is an ugly, imprecise, primitive tonal language. The only superpower ? Never, The US, Brazil , India, Europe, Indonesia, Japan, will all be superpowers in 100 years. A truly multipolar world.
Please, please, please, shelve your delusional superpower dreams, travel to the countryside villages of rural China controlled by pseudo-communist corrupt thugs, see the real THIRD world in China by yourself. There are as many people in abject poverty in China as in India, the difference is; China hides them, India, as true democracy, doesn’t !

You'll never walk alone
July 11, 2011 at 15:29

On the same rationale, the US should give up Saipan and Guam and whatever island occupied by them in the pacific.

July 10, 2011 at 07:07

please see this in english

July 6, 2011 at 13:09

U just talk the talk and walk the walk? I want all the guys to start talking sense here and also wish all asean blogers to turn ur attention and energy to the real issues. Here is an article on the economist 2nd of July, titled which emerging economies are at greatest risk of overheating. Those proud vietnamese, philipinos, indonesians, thais or omnipresent singaporeans, must be thrilled to see their names on the list ahead of china, in a zone thats deemed as vulnerable and heading for crash. The analysis is based on several indicators in unemployment, inflation,current account deficit, spare capacity in the economy in relation to growth, etc. Pl someone read it before u scream for the blood of chinese.

I used to think china is the public enemy number one, not only in this dispute, but also biggest threat to world economic recovery ( yes, americans and europeans as well as japanese screwed it up, now they are shifting the burden on to china). Apprently, there is more than meets the eye. How does this happen?

everyday, we are bombarded by the news that paints the bleak prognosis of chinese economy that is beset with real estate bubbles, investment driven growth model, rampent corruption and manipulated currencies. I often wonder if this extensive scrutiny ( sometimes with malicious intentions) is attributable to china’ s new status as a emerging superpower. So how come brasil or india, another big emerging economies ( ranked sencond and fourth respectively on the chart) havent enjoyed same amount of attention, not to mention almost all asean countries ( indonesia 5th, vietnam 7th as opposed to china 14th in the middle of the chart).

i am sick and tired of hearing the whinings from both sides, especially those aseans ( seriously, read the article). If u viets or philies have balls, take up ur arms like britain did in 1982 and get it over with. If u guys devote as much energy in development as u have in war mongering and saber rattling, u will steal the chinese spotlight because of sth more benificial to ur people other than this endless charade.

July 5, 2011 at 05:55

@ Frank – you said “Only with China’s help, Vietnamese can have their own country.”

Only? Like when you said ONLY with China’s help, Vietnamese were able to defeat the Mongols in another story from this website. Anyone with a basic education would know that China was a slave state under the Mongols for years and Vietnam was able to defeat the fearsome Mongols along with Chinese lackey all by themselves.

July 4, 2011 at 06:56

Warmonger is right. Some stupid people say that the sea with name “South China Sea” (which was in fact given by Europeans) must belong to China. What happens if India claims that the Indian ocean belong to India, or Vietnam claims that Tonkin gulf belongs to Tonkin (North Vietnam), etc. ?

July 4, 2011 at 02:12

Or better still… be classy and savvy…but almost bankrupt. Never mind the US, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and almost Spain. It’s the new thing

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