Defining the “status quo” in the South China Sea

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Below is a piece published at The Diplomat, running through what the “status quo” is in the South China Sea, and the difficulties encountered in trying to define it. Aside from identifying some key metrics of the current situation in the disputed area, the aim was generate some debate, or at least second thoughts, about the usefulness of the “status quo” as a normative standard. The concept has proved useful in diplomacy over Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, and (arguably) in international relations theory. But given the complex, watery nature of the South China Sea dispute, i argue it’s not likely to help in establishing the kind of clear-cut, universally recognized standards the region needs to forestall escalation there.

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The South China Sea: Defining the ‘Status Quo’

The term’s broad-brush vagueness – it simply means “the existing situation” – may make it appealing for practitioners of diplomacy, but the lack of clarity limits its usefulness as an analytic tool. More troublingly, being such an all-encompassing term, its use as a normative standard is inevitably selective, resulting in inconsistencies that risk breeding misunderstanding and mistrust. Unless used with care and nuance, it is a term that is more likely to undermine than underpin a “rules-based order” in maritime Asia.

The U.S. position on the East and South China Sea disputes, as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials have frequently reiterated in recent months, is that it opposes changes to the status quo made through force or coercion. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have used this standard formulation frequently since mid-2013, most prominently in relation to the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and its well-publicized island-construction project in the South China Sea.

Claimants in the disputed seas have also embraced the idea of defending the status quo from Chinese advances. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines on June 4 affirmed their opposition to “unilateral attempts to changes the status quo.” Vietnam maintains a slightly subtler position that stops short of outright opposition, as typified by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s call for countries to refrain from “actions that would complicate the situation and change the status quo of rocks and shoals.”

Read on over at The Diplomat…

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China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new

China's Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

China’s Johnson Reef (赤瓜礁) reclamation project, as photographed by the Philippines Navy (click for source)

Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.

The subject, in summary:

China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.

This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.

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“Ours before, still today, more so in the future”: who is claiming the whole South China Sea…and why?

China's official nine-dashed line, as attached to numerous documents submitted to the UN. China claims the islands within the 9-dashed line, not the whole maritime area contained within.

China’s official nine-dashed line, as attached to numerous documents submitted to the UN. China claims the islands within the 9-dashed line, not the whole maritime area contained within.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has attracted some heat from the hot heads of China’s internet population, for daring to state [zh] that “no country, including China, has laid claim to the entire South China Sea”.

Apparently seizing upon this domestic criticism of Hong Lei, the Global Times’ English edition has published a piece positing that “public will” is increasingly influencing foreign policy on the sea disputes. While Vietnam and the Philippines have tried to “woo the public” with hawkish stances,

China uses less public will to press other countries and does not seek to present a hard stance to win people over, despite paying the price of occasional fierce criticism.

On the South China Sea issue, I think China’s claims are misunderstood by media employees, many alleged experts and, perhaps most significantly, ordinary people inside China. While opinion-page pundits like Pan Guoping may claim the entire sea for China, and international media can sneer at the outrageous ambiguity of the famous nine-dash line, the PRC’s claim has actually been quite clear for some years. As expressed ad nauseum in official statements and UN submissions over the past few years,

China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters

The islands . . . and the adjacent waters. China, pretty unambiguously, does not claim the whole South China Sea, and the attachment of the above map to diplomatic notes to the UN in 2009 and 2011 indicates further that the nine-dash line does not depict China’s claimed maritime boundaries. The BBC misrepresents the PRC’s position in every report it makes on the South China Sea, to which it attaches this map:

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