China's Island Strategy:
Image Credit: Flickr (Al Jazeera English)

China's Island Strategy: "Redefine the Status Quo."

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The most striking feature of China’s behavior in its maritime disputes this year has been efforts to redefine the status quo.  In its disputes with the Philippines and Japan, China has used the presence of its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to create new facts on the water to strengthen China’s sovereignty claims.

Before April 2012, neither China nor the Philippines maintained a permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Fishermen from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China operated in and around the large reef.  At times in the past, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Philippine navy had arrested Chinese fishermen who were inside the shoal.  Since then, Chinese patrols have sailed by the shoal, but no effort has been undertaken to exercise effective control over the shoal or its surrounding waters.

The situation changed following the standoff over sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal.  The standoff began in April 2012 when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating in the shoal’s lagoon.  After receiving a distress call, two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels arrived on the scene, blocking the entrance to the lagoon and preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.  After the fishing boats left the shoal, however, government ships from both sides remained to defend claims to sovereignty over the shoal.  By the end of May, China had deployed as many as seven CMS and Bureau of Fisheries Administration ships.

In early June, the Philippines announced that an agreement had been reached with China for a mutual withdrawal of ships.  Although China never publicly confirmed the existence of such an agreement, ships from both sides left in mid June as a typhoon approached the area.  Later, however, Chinese ships returned and appear have maintained a permanent presence in the waters around the shoal since then.  In mid July 2012, for example, an intrepid news crew from Al Jazeera videotaped an attempt to visit the shoal, only to be turned away by a combination of CMS and fisheries administration vessels.  China has also roped off the sole entrance to the lagoon inside the shoal to control access to it. 

Before the standoff, China had no permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Three months later, China had effective control of the shoal and the surrounding waters, thereby altering the status quo in this dispute in its favor.  As an editorial in the Global Times noted, China has “directly consolidated control” of the shoal.

A similar dynamic is underway in the East China Sea over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands.  Before the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islets from a private citizen in September 2012, Chinese government ships had generally avoided entering the 12 nautical mile limit of Japan’s territorial waters around the islands.  As I wrote several years ago, China and Japan appeared to have a tacit agreement from the mid-2000s to limit the presence of ships and citizens near the islands in an effort to manage the potential for escalation.

In September 2010, the detention of a Chinese fishing captain whose boat had broached the 12 nautical mile limit and then rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship sparked a crisis in China-Japan relations.  Part of China’s response included increasing the number of patrols by marine surveillance and fisheries vessels near the islands.  Most of the time, these boats remained beyond Japan’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters around the Senkakus or crossed this line only briefly.  China in practical terms continued to accept Japanese de facto control of the islands and their associated territorial waters (over which a state enjoys sovereignty rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

After the purchase of the islands last month, however, China has abandoned this approach. China first issued baselines to claim its own territorial waters around the islands and then began to conduct almost daily patrols within its newly-claimed waters – directly challenging the Japanese control that it had largely accepted before.  The purpose of the patrols is two-fold: to demonstrate that the purchase of the islands will not affect China’s sovereignty claims and to challenge Japan’s position that there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the islands. 

Although China does not control the waters around the Senkakus (unlike the situation at Scarborough), it no longer accepts de facto Japanese control.  On October 31, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman asserted that a new status quo had been created.  After describing China’s new patrols as “routine,” Hong Lai stated that “the Japanese side should face squarely the reality that a fundamental change has already occurred in the Diaoyu Islands.”

In both cases, China responded to challenges to its claims with an enhanced physical presence to bolster China’s position and deter any further challenges.  These responses suggest an even greater willingness to pursue unilateral actions to advance its claims.  In neither case is a return to the status quo ante likely.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

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