China Moves to Take Control of South China Sea

Tensions seemed to have eased between Beijing and Manila, but CDT previously reported that China had vowed to oppose military aggression in the South China Sea. While the announcement seemed to be directed towards the recent tensions between China and Vietnam, there are now reports of Beijing sending warnings to both countries. From the New York Times:

Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, urged Vietnam and the Philippines on Monday to improve their relations with China by softening their stances in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. During a regularly scheduled news conference, Mr. Liu was especially critical of the Philippines after a politician there recently described as weak the Chinese claim to a disputed shoal. But Mr. Liu also urged Vietnam “to do more to help bilateral relations be conducive to peace and stability,” after the Vietnamese government allowed as many as 200 people to march toward the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi on Sunday to protest China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims.

As China warns its neighboring countries over the disputed waters, China has also moved to assert control over the region. The Vancouver Sun reports:

In swift succession Chinese authorities have sought to establish a legal framework for their claim, which extends to Indonesian waters over 1,200 kilometres from the nearest undisputed Chinese landfall, and to threaten its neighbours if they continue to defy Beijing’s claimed sovereignty over the sea.

Beijing claims its sailors discovered and established sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly clusters of islands, islets and shoals hundreds of years ago. Therefore, runs the Chinese argument, most of the South China Sea falls within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones around these features established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1980s.

To underline the point, the same day China’s Foreign Ministry announced it is establishing a city-ranked municipal administration covering the Paracel and Spratly island chains. The so-called “Sansha City” will have its seat of government on Woody island in the Paracels, an area China took from Vietnam in 1974.

Then, a week ago, the China National Offshore Oil Co. (CNOOC) announced nine new blocks in the South China Sea are open for oil companies to bid for exploration and development rights. But unlike blocks offered by CNOOC in 2010 and last year, which were in undisputed Chinese waters, these blocks cover 160 square kilometres in the centre of the South China Sea. The western edges of some of the blocks reach to less than 80 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, well within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

According to Bloomberg, the Philippines may ask the United States to deploy spy planes to monitor the region:

The Philippines may ask the U.S. to deploy spy planes to monitor areas of the South China Sea following an increase in incidents amid a territorial dispute with China, a presidential spokesman said.

“There is no aggressive intent and it should not be seen as a provocation,” Ricky Carandang, President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman, said by telephone from Manila today. The Philippines would need U.S. P3 Orion planes because the nation doesn’t have aircraft with spying capabilities, Reuters reported yesterday, citing comments Aquino made in an interview.

The U.S. “supports the Philippines in enhancing its maritime domain awareness,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters yesterday in Washington, while referring specific questions on military cooperation to the Pentagon.

As a response to the Philippines request for spy planes, the People’s Daily has claimed that this move is a plot to deliberately stir up tensions between the two nations. Reuters adds:

“On the cusp of the ASEAN foreign ministers meetings, the Philippines is sparing no effort to stir up the South China Sea issue through all sorts of means, and we should be on guard against its plots,” the newspaper wrote.

The People’s Daily said ASEAN was not the right forum to discuss the South China Sea, repeating the government’s stance that talks should only happen on a bilateral basis between the countries directly involved.

All countries, including the Philippines, would also do well to remember the economic benefits they have gained from China’s boom, it added.

The commentary was published under the pen name “Zhong Sheng”, meaning “Voice of China”, which is often used to give the paper’s view on foreign policy issues.

Read previous coverage about tensions in the South China Sea, via CDT.