Territorial disputes in the South China Sea first caught the public’s attention in 1974 during the military engagement between China and South Vietnam, as it was then known, over the control of the Paracel Islands.
In the following four decades, rows have escalated in the troubled waters between China and several neighboring countries.
Now major powers, mainly the United States, Japan, Australia and India, have also stepped in.
One thing in common among Beijing’s recent white paper on China’s military strategy, Tokyo’s amendment of its self-defense laws and Washington’s military rebalancing in Asia is concern about the “nine-dash line”, which is used by Beijing to demarcate its claims over most of the South China Sea.
The prolonged bickering over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands between China and Japan and even independence for Taiwan look trivial compared with the multiple disputes the line has sparked with its complexity.
The line was first promulgated by the Kuomintang government in 1947, when 11 dashes were initially used to peg out China’s territorial waters in the sea, with the southernmost tip about four degrees north of the equator.
Yet China failed to determine the exact coordinates of the line, and the distance between each dash was well over 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers), the extent of a country’s exclusive economic zone.
The ambiguity also stemmed from the fact that the Kuomintang didn’t clarify whether the entire area within the line should be included in China’s territorial claims or just the islands, islets, reefs and surrounding waters it encloses.
Beijing scrapped two of the dashes close to Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1953 as a gesture of goodwill by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.
On the 2013 version of Beijing’s official maps, an additional dash has been drawn northeast of Taiwan (outside the South China Sea) as a proclamation of its suzerainty over the island.
Beijing’s latest addition to the nine-dashed line lies in the waters between Taiwan’s Yilan county and the Yaeyama Islands — Japan’s westernmost territory, under the jurisdiction of Okinawa prefecture — just 70 nautical miles east of Taiwan.
Obviously, Beijing’s relentless pursuit of its claims has boomeranged: Tokyo now looks to join hands with countries bordering the South China Sea to contain China’s growing ambitions.
This dovetails with a string of amendments and revisions made to the national security laws spearheaded by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, such as abolishing the restrictions on arms exports.
Now we see that Tokyo has been proposing various programs of military assistance and cooperation with India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and so on.
The Abe administration also reinterpreted relevant articles of the constitution in July, lifting the ban on engaging in “collective self-defense”.
Last month, 11 statutes concerning international aid, military attack, regional security and taking part in the United Nations peacekeeping forces were finalized.
The Japan Self-Defense Force will now be free from any legal obstacle to carry out operations anywhere in the world, and Tokyo can exercise the right of “collective self-defense” and mount military actions if one of its allies is attacked.
All these amendments and new legislation have been tabled to the National Diet (Japan’s bicameral legislature).
Responding to criticism of them from opposition parties earlier this month, Abe cited the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and other key areas as possibly affecting Japan’s national security.
Needless to say, “other key areas” in Abe’s remarks include the South China Sea.
One reason is that Japan has to ensure secure shipping in those waters of its oil imports from the Middle East.
We can say that the South China Sea is a key battleground when major powers wrestle over control of the ocean era.
And when a country’s economic influence and activities transcend its lands and territories to other regions, it needs to build its muscle — especially at sea – to protect its core interests overseas.
The past 200 years of colonialism by western powers is proof of this.
Today, China has stakes in many corners of the world, and thus it wasn’t shy about the significance of building a strong navy with ocean-going military capability in the May white paper.
One noteworthy statement is that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”.
Clearly, recent endeavors by Beijing — from trialing its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and modernizing its nuclear submarines to island building — are not about the barren Diaoyu islets but the vast economic and territorial interests within the nine-dash line.
Similarly, were it not for the sake of countering Beijing, Tokyo wouldn’t have enacted so many amendments to the law to unfetter its military.
The same goes for Washington’s military rebalancing in Asia.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 4.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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