Commentary | August 20, 2012

China's "City" in the South China Sea?

Chinese translation (at bottom) courtesy of Luo Min of Leshan Teachers College.

Diplomatic tensions between China and its neighbors have been rising in recent months, reaching a new high when China announced on June 21, 2012 that it had formally approved the establishment of a prefecture level administration, called Sanshashi in Chinese, for disputed territories in the South China Sea. The fear in neighboring countries is that China’s growing naval power is emboldening it to become more aggressive. The United States released an official statement on August 3 criticizing China’s new administrative measures, prompting an angry response from Beijing.   

EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin, who is the author of China’s Ocean Frontier: International Law, Military Force and National Development (1998), offers some essential background on this dispute and then comments on two key questions: What is China’s intent with the Sansha City announcement, and what are the implications of Washington’s reaction to it?

Islands or Rocks?

There is an important distinction to be made between the Paracel Islands in the north and the Spratly Islands in the south. The Paracel Islands include some relatively big islands that can naturally support at least minimal human habitation (one of the tests whether they qualify for an economic zone). For this reason, they are susceptible to administrative actions or human activities, like guano collection, that might allow a state to claim to have exercised sovereignty over the land in the past. If a settlement could be reached between two states (China and Vietnam) over sovereignty, few other states would object to the sovereign state from extending an exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles from these islands. China has controlled the Paracel Islands completely since  it evicted military forces of South Vietnam from them in 1974. In 1958, the government of North Vietnam had recognized Chinese claims to the Paracel Islands and had made no claim of its own until after the unification of Vietnam. (The Vietnamese claim relies in part on acts by France as a colonial power in Vietnam prior to 1954.)

The Spratly Islands present a very different picture from the Paracel group. Those islands are not really a distinct group that might be accorded consideration as a single administrative unit under the international law of territorial acquisition. It is an agglomeration of reefs and rocks with a spread from end to end of around one thousand kilometers, including a handful of very small, scattered islands. Chinese sources have identified 193 named reefs, shoals, submerged reefs or hidden shoals. Western charts recognise as many as twelve distinct island groups; Chinese terminology refers to at least five separate groups as well as numerous individual islands not associated with the five groups There are so many claimants to all or some of these islands that it is almost impossible to envision any meaningful legal settlement between the parties that would serve as the basis for determining an EEZ boundary. 

All of the features occupied by China in the Spratly Islands are in fact submerged reefs or rocks that have been built up with concrete to enable a handful of military personnel to be stationed there. China has had few other options because other claimants have occupied all of the natural islands and China has chosen not to try to evict them. This set of circumstances is very important. China and other claimants will probably only reach a settlement on maritime boundaries in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands that ignores them as base points for devising EEZ boundaries. China might negotiate away its claim to this or that reef or rock in the Spratly Islands, as it has given away small amounts of territory in settlements of border disputes with contiguous states on its land borders. China is unlikely ever to negotiate away its claim to the Paracel Islands, for reasons outlined in my book, China’s Ocean Frontier.

 

The Taiwan Connection

China’s policy in the South China Sea island disputes is intimately connected with the Taiwan issue. Taiwan claims the same island groups claimed by China. In fact, when the Chinese government in Beijing came to power in 1949 it inherited the claims from the Republic of China.  Taiwan was the first government to send military forces to occupy islands in the Spratly group, first in 1946 and then again in 1956. Taiwan has maintained a small military unit or administrative presence on one island in the Spratly group continuously since 1956. China was so circumspect about this situation in the Spratly Islands that it waited until 1988 to station any military personnel on the small number of reefs and rocks it occupies. The Chinese military forces have avoided any clash with Taiwanese counterparts in the island group. As long as Taiwan maintains a full claim to all of the islands on behalf of a unitary China, it will be impossible for the Chinese government in Beijing to negotiate any settlement. For third parties there is also a complicating factor to the Taiwan claim. Under international law, Taiwan can probably not be accorded any standing since it is not recognized by states committed to the “one China” policy.

 

What is China doing with the Sansha City announcement and related PLA move?

On July 21, 2012, China’s State Council announced the establishment of the prefectural-level administration, Sanshashi (which has been translated by numerous sources as Sansha City) to administer island groups that it claims in the South China Sea. The government seat will be stationed on Woody Island, part of the Paracel group. This upgraded the level of administration from that announced in 1988, when China set up the county-level Administrative Office for the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and Macclesfield Bank (a wholly submerged marine feature). On July 23, the PLA announced that it would set up a new garrison level command of ground force personnel responsible for managing the city's national defence mobilization, military reserves and carrying out military operations, with subsequent information that the garrison would be led by a senior colonel.

According to Chinese sources, the moves were in retaliation for administrative measures taken by two rival claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, in recent years. In 2009, the Philippines issued a new law on its territorial sea which reiterated its claim to part of the Spratly group. At that time, a Chinese military analyst was cited by a pro-China Hong Kong paper, Ta kung pao, as advocating three measures in response:

  • speeding up the process of demarcating the baselines of China's territorial waters;
  • tightening up effective administrative management and control of the islands; and
  • intensifying readiness for naval operations, such as training with operating weaponry.

On June 21, 2012, Vietnam passed a new law on its maritime jurisdiction, including a reiteration of its claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The anticipated passing of that law was the subject of an official meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese officials in October 2011. China’s failure to convince Vietnam to change course in those talks prompted it to take two of the measures foreshadowed by the military commentator in 2009 as mentioned above. (In fact, the Sansha City announcement was foreshadowed in December 2007, but shelved after street demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City against China that led to consultations a month later between the two countries. According to a Chinese official statement, the two countries agreed then to settle the “maritime” disputes by dialogue and consultation. Both sides refuse to negotiate on the territorial disputes.)

The new moves announced by China are largely symbolic in character and will not alter China’s calculation about the use of force. Since moving its units into the Spratly Islands in 1988 when there was a minor clash with Vietnamese forces, China has avoided combat operations. It has engaged in a range of other pressure tactics, as have other claimants. The new army garrison is small, administrative in character and not likely to affect any military balance in the South China Sea. It is on an island in the Paracel islands at least 400 nautical miles away from any island where rival claimants have military units. According to an Associated Press report of August 3 2012, the responsibility for triggering the latest round of tensions between China and the Philippines “began after Chinese fishing boats were stopped by Philippine vessels.” The A.P. dispatch then described the following sequence of events: “Manila deployed a navy ship, supplied by the U.S. the previous year, leading China to send more vessels of its own and quarantine Philippine fruit exports to China. Manila says Beijing has not fully complied with a June agreement, supported by the U.S., for a mutual withdrawal and has used barriers to block Philippine access to the reef.”

China has promoted cooperative measures to protect international merchant shipping at the global level, and at the regional level in supporting anti-piracy measures. As a trade-dependent economy, China has very strong vested interests in protecting sea-borne trade. China does have naval and air forces based on or near Hainan Island that could interfere with international merchant shipping, but it has fewer submarines in its entire navy in 2012 (46) than the 47 that were lost by Germany in just the month of May 1943 at the height of the war on shipping in the Atlantic in World War II. Moreover, the naval balance of power, like the overall military balance in the maritime regions of the Western Pacific, is very heavily tilted in favor of the United States and its allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. China could try to disrupt shipping, but the United States and its allies have made plain their very strong intention to oppose, with force if necessary, any such action.

China’s official claims to the geographic extent of its maritime jurisdiction (territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf) conform to the letter of international law. The possible exception is that official Chinese maps of the South China Sea show a dotted line that encompasses the entire South China Sea. This line first appeared in maps released by the Republic of China in 1946 and has been interpreted by many observers to imply a territorial waters claim to the entire South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China has never officially asserted such a claim, and it has made declarations and passed laws which suggest that it has no such claim. The United States and other countries have called on China to clarify its view on this dotted line in the South China Sea.

 

What are the implications of the United States official reaction?

On August 3, 2012, the U.S. Department of State reacted to the news with a statement that called on all parties to settle their disputes, singling out China for its Sansha City announcements. The statement said: “Recent developments include an uptick in confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions, and the incidents around the Scarborough Reef, including the use of barriers to deny access. In particular, China's upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” This statement marked a clear departure by the United States in singling out one of the parties for escalating tensions through a direct challenge of domestic legislation and a minor deployment of troops.

For its part, China demanded to know why the United States had singled it out: “Why has the United States chosen to turn a blind eye to the acts of some country marking out a large number of oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea and making domestic legislation claiming as its own China's islands, reefs and waters? Why has the United States chosen on the one hand not to mention the acts of some country using naval vessel to threaten Chinese fishermen?” China went on to charge that the U.S. statement “showed total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message. It is not conducive to efforts by the parties concerned to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region at large. The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction of and firm opposition to it.” These views were conveyed by the Chinese government a day earlier when it summoned U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, Robert Wang, to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing,

 

What Next?

The pressure on China to be less adamant about its claims in the Spratly Islands is mounting. China does have an obligation under international law to try to settle disputes peacefully, but since that applies to all parties, China is unlikely to back down without some equivalent gesture from other claimants. In the Spratly Islands, China will continue to avoid combat operations because a number of larger interests would be adversely affected for no significant gain. But it will retaliate with military force if attacked. A minor skirmish with loss of life cannot be ruled out. Trying to keep the dispute at a low level, China has so far avoided drawing any baselines around the Spratly Islands. In the Paracel Islands, which China has controlled fully since 1974, the situation is very different. For China, this dispute is definitively over and settled. China has drawn baselines around the Paracel Islands. Since Vietnam is the only other recognized claimant to the Paracels, China feels that it has a very strong hand, much stronger than in the sprawling and dispersed Spratly Islands where some 40 islands, rocks and reefs are occupied by three other states – and one is occupied by Taiwan.

 

 

 

中国在南中国海的城市?*

近几个月来,中国和其邻国间的外交关系日益紧张起来,达到一个新的高度。2012年6月21日,中国宣布它已正式批准在南中国海有争议的领土成立地级行政管理机构——三沙市。周边国家的恐惧在于中国日益增长的海军力量使中国更加强悍。八月三日,美国发布官方声明批评中国的新的行政措施,促使北京方面的情绪非常愤怒。

重要智库——东西方研究所教授级研究员格雷戈·奥斯汀,他是《中国海洋边界:国际法,军事力量和国家发展(1998)》一书的作者,为此提供了关于此争议的一些必要背景,然后在两个关键问题做出评论:1.中国设立三沙市的公告究竟有何意味?2.华盛顿对此通告的反应又有何暗示?

一、岛屿或者岩石?

在位于北部的西沙群岛和位于南部的南沙群岛之间有一个重要的区别。西沙群岛包括一些相对较大的岛屿,自然可以支持至少最低限度的人类居住(借此可以测试一下他们是否有资格享受经济区)。出于这个原因,它们很容易发起行政行为或人类活动,比如上岛收集粪类,这可能使一个国家声称在过去就对这块土地行使主权。如果有方案可以达成,以解决两国(中国和越南)对这块土地的主权问题,也就不会有其他国家反对其主权国从这些岛屿延伸200海里专属经济区。中国控制了西沙群岛,完全因它在1974年将南越军事力量从这些岛屿驱逐出去。1958年,北越政府已经认识到中国声称对西沙群岛拥有主权,而它是在越南统一以后才发出自己的主权声明。(越南声明的理由部分在于法国制定的法律里,法国是1954年前在越南的殖民力量。)

南沙群岛呈现出和西沙群岛完全不同的面貌。这些岛屿都不是真正的一个确切的群体,在领土确认国际法下,这些岛屿不会被认定为一个单一的行政单位。这里积聚了一些礁石与岩石,两端长约为一千公里,包括一些很小的分散的岛屿。中国已确定并命名了193处暗礁、礁石、浅滩。西方图表识别了多达十二个不同的岛群;中国术语则是指称至少五个不同的岛群,以及与他们不相关联的不计其数的单个的小岛。有那么多方面对所有这些岛屿或其中部分岛屿宣称主权,要在相关各方间设想一种有意义的合法的解决方案,作为界定专属经济区边界的基础,这几乎是不可能的。

中国占领南沙群岛的所有特征在于,礁石或岩石上用混凝土修建了设施,使少数军事人员驻扎在这里。中国很少有其他选择,因为其他主权宣示方已经占据了所有的天然岛屿,中国选择了不试图驱逐他们。这一系列情况是非常重要的。中国和其他主权宣示方可能只会达成南沙群岛附近的海上边界的和解,而忽略他们作为主权宣示方专属经济区界限的设计基点。中国可能在谈判中对南沙群岛中的这个或那个暗礁或岩石放弃主权,正如它在与陆上毗连的国家解决边界争端时舍弃极少部分领土一样。基于我在1998年的《中国的海洋边界》一书中的理由,中国是永远不可能放弃西沙群岛的主权的。

二、链接台湾

中国在南中国海岛屿争端的政策是与台湾问题密切联系在一起的。台湾就中国所宣称主权的同一岛屿群体也宣称主权。事实上,当北京的中国政府在1949年掌权,它就从中华民国继承了主权宣示。台湾是第一个派遣军队占领南沙群岛的政府,第一次是1946年,然后是1956年。从1956年以来,台湾在南沙群岛一直维持一个较小的军事单位或行政存在。中国对于南沙群岛这种情况非常慎重,直到1988年才开始在它所占领的少数礁石与岩石上驻扎了军事人员。中国的军事力量避免在这些群岛上与台湾同行产生任何冲突。只要台湾代表一个统一的中国,对所有这些岛屿保持主权宣示,北京的中国政府就不可能商谈任何解决方式。对于台湾的主权声明,任何第三方也必须面对这种复杂的因素。根据国际法,台湾将不会被给予任何主权国家地位,因为它是不被信守“一个中国”政策的国家所承认的。

三、中国成立三沙市及其相关的军事部署,意欲何为?

2012年7月21日,中国国务院宣布成立三沙市,以管理它在南中国海宣示主权的群岛。市政府将选址建立在西沙群岛中的一部分永兴岛上,这是对中国在1988年对西沙、南沙、中沙群岛建立县级管理办事处的一次管理规格的升级。7月23日,中国人民解放军宣布将成立一支新水平的地面力量的守备部队司令部,负责管理国防动员、军事储备和实施军事行动。后续信息表明这支队伍将由一名大校领导。根据中国的文献,此举是为了应对越南和菲律宾两个对手近年来所采取的行政举措。2009年,菲律宾就其领海颁布了新的法律,重申其对南沙群岛部分岛屿的主权。当时一个中国的军事分析家提到了力挺中国的香港大公报的三条应对建议:1.加快划分中国领海基线的进程;2.对岛屿加强有效的行政管理和控制;3.加紧准备海上作战,如培训武器使用。

2012年6月21日,越南对其海事管辖权通过新的法律,包括重申其对西沙群岛和南沙群岛的主权。这部法律的预期通过是中越两国官员在2011年官方会谈的一个主题。在这些会谈中,中国未能说服越南改变颁布新法的进程,促使中国采取了上述军事评论员在2009年提到的两条措施。(事实上,三沙市的成立在2007年12月就已经预示了,但当时由于河内和胡志明市举行了反对中国的街头示威而搁置了。这次示威导致了一个月以后两国的磋商。根据中国官方声明,两国同意随后通过对话和磋商解决海上争议,双方都拒绝就领土争端进行谈判。)

中国所宣告的这些新举措在很大程度上是如所预料的象征性的动作,将不会改变中国动用武力的打算。中国自1988年其行政机构入驻南沙群岛以来,除去当时与越南军队有一个小的冲突以外,已经避免了较大作战行动。中国在应用其他较多的策略应对压力,正如其他相关各方一样。新的守备部队驻防规模较小,更多是行政性质,不可能影响南中国海的任何军事平衡。它驻扎在西沙群岛的一个岛上,距离任何一个对手的岛上驻军都至少在400海里以外。据美联社2012年8月3日报道,新一轮中菲间紧张关系的触发开始于中国渔船被菲律宾船只逼停。美联社然后描述了下列事件:“马尼拉方面部署了前一年由美国提供的海军船队,这导致中国派遣出更多船只应对并加强了对菲律宾出口到中国水果的检疫。马尼拉方面说北京没有完全遵守美国支持的要求双边撤退的六月协议反而设置障碍,阻止菲方接近这些礁石。”

中国在全球范围内促进了合作措施以保护国际商业船运,而且在区域层面支持反盗版措施。作为一个以贸易为主的经济体,中国在保护海上贸易上有很大的既得利益。中国在海南或者海南附近确实拥有海军和空军力量,这些力量足可以干扰国际商业船运,但它的整个海军到2012年只拥有较少的潜艇,46艘,这比德国在1943年5月份二战当中大西洋航运之战高潮时仅仅一个月损失的总量47艘还少。此外,海军力量的平衡,如西太平洋地区的海上整体军事实力平衡,是非常严重倾向于美国及其盟友的力量,包括台湾、日本和韩国。中国可以尝试破坏航运,但美国及其盟友已将反对意图表露无遗,如果必要将采用武力等诸如此类行动。

中国官方声称的海事管辖权的地理范围(领海、毗连区、专属经济区和大陆架)符合国际法的字面意义。可能的例外是,中国南中国海的官方地图显示出一条虚线,这条虚线的范围涵盖了整个南中国海。这条虚线首次出现在中华人民共和国1946年发布的地图,许多观察家把它解读为中国暗示其领海主权适用于整个南中国海。中国人民共和国从未正式提出这样的要求,它所通过的声明和法律也没有暗示这样的要求。美国和其他国家呼吁中国阐明其在南中国海地图上这条虚线的真实意义。

四、美国官方反应有何意味?

2012年8月3日,美国国务院对中国成立三沙市这则新闻的反应是发表了一条声明,呼吁各方针对中国关于成立三沙市的公告解决纠纷。声明说:“最近的时局进展包括对抗性辩论的升级,资源开发上的分歧,经济胁迫措施的出台,斯卡伯勒礁周边的事故,包括使用障碍拒绝接近。特别是,中国升格三沙市的行政管理级别和建立一个新的军事守备部队,覆盖南中国海有争议地区,违背了通过外交合作解决分歧和风险的努力,进一步加剧该地区的紧张局势。”这段声明是美国针对当事一方通过直接挑战国内立法和小规模部队部署而使得局势紧张的情况所做出的分道扬镳的明确表态。

就中国而言,中国要求知道为什么美国那么针对它:“为什么美国对有些国家在南中国海标记出大量的石油和天然气区域以及制定国内立法将中国的岛屿、暗礁和水域宣布为它自己所有的行为视而不见?另一方面为什么美国并没有提到一些国家使用舰艇威胁中国渔民的行为呢?”中国继续指责美国的声明:“美国声明完全不顾事实、混淆正确和错误、并传递了一个严重的错误信息。这不利于通过各方努力维护南中国海乃至亚太地区的和平与稳定,中方对此表示强烈不满和坚决反对。”北京的外交部在前一天召见美国公使王晓岷时把中国政府的这些意见转达给了美方

五、下一步呢?

对于中国在南中国海不顽固坚持主张的压力在增加。中国确有义务根据国际法努力和平解决争端,但由于这些基本原则适用于相关各方,如果其他各方没有对应的姿态,中国是不可能退让的。在南沙群岛,中国将继续避免作战,因为没有明显的收获,就会对许多较大的利益产生不利影响。但如果遭受攻击,中方将武力报复,一场小的冲突与生命的损失将不能排除。为了试图将争议维持在低水平,中国到目前为止避免在南沙群岛周边划定基线。在西沙群岛,中国自1974年就已经完全控制,情况是非常不同的。对于中国,关于西沙群岛的争议已经确定过去并解决好了。中国已经在西沙群岛周边划定了基线。由于越南只是唯一被认可的对西沙群岛宣示主权的另外一方,因而中国认为它自己在西沙群岛拥有强大实力,远远强于它在庞大而又分散的南沙群岛上的情形。在那里,大约40个岛屿,岩石和珊瑚礁被其他三个国家或者地区占领——其中一个就是台湾。