Hot water

Bill Hayton

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USS Chancellorsville in the South China Sea. Photo: Sarah Myers/US Navy

Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion
Humphrey Hawksley
Duckworth Overlook: 2018
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What does China want in the South China Sea? In short: as much as it can get away with. It is explicit about this. In its 2016 White Paper on the South China Sea disputes, the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) made clear that it claims every rock and reef within the “U-shaped line” that it draws on its maps, all the rights granted by the Law of the Sea and then a lot more unspecified “historic rights” on top. The PRC leadership appears to be out for whatever it can grab: territory, fish, oil, natural gas and more. This is what a Chinese-led regional order will look like.

Back in 1982, at the end of nine years of negotiations, virtually every country in the world agreed how they should behave in the world’s seas. In the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they decided that claims to maritime territory could be made only from defined points of land, that claims to resources in the sea could be made only within certain limits and that all ships, including military ships, have the right to sail anywhere in the sea on the basis of “innocent passage”. The PRC is now trying to tear up UNCLOS by circumventing it in the South China Sea, while making use of its provisions everywhere else.

In July 2017, for example, three Chinese warships sailed through the English Channel on their way to military exercises with Russia in the Baltic Sea. The Channel is so narrow that the ships had to pass through British and French territorial waters to get through. Neither Britain nor France complained since China was making use of its UNCLOS rights. Yet when British naval ships sailed through the Spratly Islands in mid-2018, the PRC government objected. Chinese military vessels, including spy ships, are popping up in the territorial waters of more and more countries; yet even as the PRC asserts its own rights to do this, it seeks to deny the same rights to others. This should worry everyone who cares about international peace and security.

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