XNA’s groundless criticism against the US dispatch of warships to Subi and Mischief Reefs

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SCSC - On 27 October 2015, Xinhua published an article criticizing the United States for sending the USS Lassen missile destroyer to exercise the right to navigation freedom in the 12-nautical-mile zones around Subi and Mischief Reefs of the Spratly archipelago. However, the arguments provided in the article contained many groundless points.

First, the article asserted that the US action was provocative and that the US was playing the game of the brink of war in attempt to strengthen its overwhelming presence, leading to regional instability.

The groundlessness of these arguments is shown by the fact that over the past years it is China that has been trying to use its might to bully the weak, change the status quo and monopoly the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the US has been making efforts to maintain a stable order in the region. Typical examples include the blocking of Scarborough in 2012, placement of the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Viet Nam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014. Additionally, China also prevented the Philippines’ resupply of garrisons in the Second Thomas Shoal in March 2014, and its law enforcement ships intruded into South Laconia Reef, causing tensions with Malaysia. And most notably, the large-scale reclamation activities on 7 features in the Spratly islands, which were taken over by China by force, as well as the establishment of the ADIZ in the East China Sea, have caused deep concerns that someday China would establish a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea. From December 2013 to June 2015, China reclaimed more than 2,900 acres on the above-mentioned features, making 95% of the total land size in the Spratly islands and this is 17 times more than the total reclaimed area by other claimants over the past 40 years.

The provocative and bullying acts by China have caused grave concerns all over the world, and even attracted the attention from the United Nations, G7, EU, ASEAN, the US and other major powers. All have expressed concerns over the unilateral and hegemonic acts of China. More than ever before, the international community has voiced strong concern on the above-said actions, particularly the recent reclamation of outcrops.

Second, the article viewed that China did not have “excessive claim” on sovereignty in the South China Sea and that China’s sovereignty had been proved in the history.

The “excessive claim” mentioned in the article relates to the Strategy on Maritime Security in Asia-Pacific issued by the US Defense Department in August 2015 in which the US Defense Department regarded the “cow-tongue line” claim of China as an “excessive claim”. Since the “cow-tongue line” was made public in 2009, Beijing has not been able to make clear whether the claim was for the entire waters or features within the line.

According to contemporary international law and norms, China’s claim in the South China Sea in general and the “cow-tongue line” in particular are valueless and “excessive claim” for a number of following reasons. First, the waters inside the “cow-tongue line” are not internal waters as provided for in Article 8 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Additionally, Chinese administrations (both the Republic of China - Chinese Taipei nowadays, and the People’s Republic of China) have never claimed the waters inside the “cow-tongue line” as internal waters. Foreign ships, including warships still exercised the right to navigate in the waters inside the “cow-tongue line” from the time it appeared in the maps published in 1948 by the Republic of China. And China has never protested. Second, this line cannot be used to determine the territorial water according to Articles 3 and 4 of the UNCLOS. The breath of the territorial sea is 12 nautical miles measured from the baselines determined in accordance with this Convention. However, the outer limit of the “cow-tongue line” is not a line every point of which is 12 nautical miles from the nearest point of China’s baseline. In fact, the line is as far as thousands of miles from the baseline and is not running along the coastline of China. Third, “the cow-tongue line” claim is also not a claim of archipelagic waters as in line with Articles from 46 to 49 of UNCLOS. The “cow-tongue line” covers all the Paracels, Spratlys, Scarborough, Macclesfield and Pratas islands. In fact, these islands and reefs are separated and located far apart and they are not joined to form a single archipelago. Fourth, the historical ground in China’s claim in the South China Sea is not recognized in Articles 10 and 15 of UNCLOS. China has never exercised this right in an effective, continuous manner without being challenged by other relevant parties. In the meantime, the official documents of China have never clearly proved its sovereignty in the East Sea in a clear-cut way.

Photo: AP

Third, the article pointed out that regardless of complicated territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries, the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea has never been harmed. The reasons partially come from the shared resolve of parties concerned in maintaining peace and partially because of China’s self-restraint.

There are two ill-founded points that should be made clear in this argument. Firstly, the article maintains that freedom of navigation and overflight has never been harmed and this is a wrong interpretation. The data and observations of countries in and outside the region in recent years have shown that China is a country that actively prevents other countries from exercising the freedom of navigation and overflight. One typical example is the collision between the EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft of the United States Navy and the J-8II fighter aircraft of China in early April 2011 when the EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft was on duty in the airspace about 80km away from Hainan Island. The United States affirmed that its aircraft was operating completely in the international airspace. Nonetheless, Chinese J-8II appeared to prevent and forced the US aircraft to make emergency landing on Hainan island. Other incidents included the USS Impeccable and the USS Cowpens. In March 2009, when the US Navy’s ocean-surveying ship, USS Impeccable, was conducting a survey in the South China Sea, it was harassed by 5 Chinese ships (one naval surveillance ship, two patrol ships and two small fishing boats). Two Chinese ships even confronted the US ship at a very short distance of less than 20 meters. In December 2013, the missile-guided USS Cowpens on its route in the South China Sea was cut across by a Chinese landing ship (at a distance of some 450 meters), compelling the ship to change the direction to avoid colliding with the Chinese ship.

Additionally, in August 2014, Chinese J-11 fighters approached, maneuvered and displayed weapons before the P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft of the US Navy at a location about 220km to the East of Hainan Island. Even before the visit of Xi Jinping to the United States, on 15 September 2015, China sent warplanes to stop a RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft of the United States in the Yellow Sea.

Secondly, when mentioning about self-restraint, the article provided totally wrong information. Those that have exercised restraint are the ASEAN claimant countries, not China. China has used fishing boats and para-military law enforcement ships to intrude into the disputed waters to expand its control and provoke smaller claimant countries. If the latter could not exercise restraint and sent their ships to stop Chinese ships, China would immediately send its warships to join in. A typical example is the case of Scarborough standoff in 2012 in which the Philippines lost its control over the shoal. HYSY 981 is also an other clear case showing Chinese unilateral and provocative actions when it dispatched as many as 130 ships of various types, including naval ships, high-capacity law enforcement ships and fishing boats. Yet Viet Nam exercised maximum restraint, perseveringly stayed at sea and took peaceful measures.

Fourth, it is wrong saying that China did not militarize the Spratly islands and its construction activities were not aimed at any country. In the visit to the United States, Xi Jinping’s statement of the non-militarization of under-construction reefs in the Spratly islands is a false promise. In reality, on all seven features under Chinese occupation, China has begun infrastructure development for military purposes as well, such as 3,000-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef and a second runway on Subi, wharfs for warships and law enforcement ships to anchor for long-term operation in the Southern part of the South China Sea.

At the same time, China has been modernizing its marine military forces, from the Navy to sub-marine, aircraft, missile, radar and the coast guard. According to the statistics of the US Defense Department, China currently has 303 naval ships of various kinds, 205 law enforcement ships, which are much bigger than the added total number of ships of other regional countries. Up to June 2014, Chinese Navy possesses 5 missile nuclear sub-marines, 4 nuclear sub-marines carrying ballistic missiles, 51 diesel sub-marines, 12 of them are equipped with AIP engines, 1 aircraft carrier, 24 destroyers, 63 missile frigates, 85 missile vessels and 57 medium and large landing ships, etc.

China is also developing modern and high-tech weapons in order to prevent the intervention from outside and to respond to the US military technology. With the introduction of the ASCM, DF-21D (ASBM) and the C4ISR, China’s combat capability has been significantly improved. It could now reach the Philippines and the Southern part of the South China Sea; even extend its military operations outside the first chain of islands.

China’s modernization of military and law enforcement forces, in the first place, is aimed at other smaller claimant states in the region and the United States. Military bases on artificial islands, on the one hand, allow China to challenge the claim of smaller states through the use of para-military vessels. And when the opportunity comes China can launch an invasion. Additionally, these bases could be the outposts to neutralize the US’ military bases in the region and to attack Hawaii and launch missiles to the US mainland in the future.

Fifth, the article criticized the United States for taking side with the Philippines and Viet Nam in the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. It also implied that Viet Nam and the Philippines had illegally occupied China’s islands. This argument is ridiculous since it is China who is the invader, neither Viet Nam nor the Philippines. It is known worldwide that China illegally occupied by force the Paracel islands from Viet Nam in 1974, Johnson South Reef and 6 other features in the Spratly islands in 1988. And in 2012, China blocked the Scarborough and prevented the Philippines from approaching the shoal. China was able to occupy archipelagoes, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea due to the use of force and might.

In a nutshell, Xinhua’s article is aimed at criticizing the United States for sending the USS Lassen to exercise the right to freedom of navigation around Subi and Mischief Reefs as provided for by international law. However, its agreements are groundless. This is in fact a game played by China to confuse and mislead the public opinions. But one reality that cannot be hidden is that China itself has always been the provocateur and bullier that causes instability in the region.

By Quoc Anh