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All at sea over China's intent
Publication Date : 12-12-2012
Moves advanced by rival claimants in South China Sea disputes have taken on a harder edge, topped off by China saying it would interdict ships found in its waters. This is happening in spite of calls for calm by Asean, as a bloc with an interest in the matter, and the United States, as a Pacific maritime power. Even a peripheral participant like India, which happens to have energy prospecting activity off the Vietnam coast, has implied it would dispatch its navy to protect its interests if it had to.
All three parties are united in preserving freedom of navigation through the South China Sea which, though not threatened by the tactical moves, could be impeded if skirmishes broke out at sea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has reaffirmed its commitment to unimpeded navigation but in the circumstances, it could expect to be greeted with a certain degree of scepticism.
Without a doubt, when China gave itself the power to board and search foreign vessels traversing waters it claims, it put a different complexion on the territorial issue. Until now it has been mainly a case of diplomatic jousting among the claimants, interspersed with the odd show of bravado by rival nations' patrol craft and fishing fleets.
But boarding ships forcibly on the high seas for inspection is an act that will raise risks of a confrontation. The announcement, made by Hainan's provincial government, is being studied by claimant-nations for Beijing's precise intent and the extent of its known authority. It has drawn unfortunate reactions, however. The Philippines, unwisely, is egging Japan on to "rearm" to provide a counterweight to China's growing military power. Meanwhile it is drawing the US into a closer strategic embrace by offering to increase troop rotation and joint training. The US is believed to be eyeing basing rights in the Philippines, which it had before, and in Vietnam, an old enemy that caused it much grief.
China has to be clear about what it is doing and the interpretations it would expect its neighbours to draw. It attempted to defuse tension by clarifying the regulation would cover only waters within 12 nautical miles of islands and territory for which it has designated "baselines". These are low-water marks along a coast from which nations define territorial waters, under maritime law. It has announced baselines for the mainland coast and the Paracels, conspicuously alone among the disputed islets. It is a mystery why China has found it necessary to make a show of it, as it has said the coverage would not extend to those parts of the South China Sea that it claims. Considerable uncertainty reigns over its intent. Whether this is posturing or fair warning of a tougher stance, the hope must be that it does not presage stormier weather ahead.