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China’s ‘mobile territory,’ strategic weapon: Oil rig

Publication Date : 16-06-2014

 

The Philippines last week fired off a new diplomatic protest against China after confirming Chinese land reclamation on McKennan (Hughes) Reef in the Spratly Islands, which is within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The protest followed disclosures by Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in April that the new reclamation appeared to be similar to Chinese activities on Gavin (Gaven) Reefs and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reef, also in the Spratlys.

Del Rosario expressed concerns over China’s “aggressive expansion” in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

In April, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) protested China’s land reclamation on Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), expressing fear that the reclaimed land could be used for military purposes, particularly for building an airstrip.

DFA spokesperson Charles Jose said continuing land reclamation on Philippine-claimed reefs was proof of China’s “intent to project its territory in the South China Sea” despite being a signatory to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Provocative

“China’s provocative and unilateral actions have lent credence to the view that it is pursuing its aggressive agenda to advance its nine-dash-line position in the South China Sea,” Jose said, referring to China’s claim to 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometre South China Sea, including waters within the EEZs of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The Philippines has challenged China’s “excessive” claim in the United Nations (UN) International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. It has asked the tribunal to clarify the claimants’ rights and obligations in the waters over which China claims “undisputable sovereignty.”

As the Philippines’ arbitration case awaits decision, however, Chinese land-grabbing in the Spratlys continues. China has also moved an oil rig to waters near the Paracel Islands and within Vietnam’s EEZ, triggering anti-China rioting in Vietnam.

The Philippines’ latest protest against China and its arbitration case in the UN tribunal focus on a pattern of actions indicating that China’s unilateral acts have been redrawing the territorial map of the South China Sea on Beijing’s own terms.

The deployment of the oil rig to Vietnam-claimed territory in May marks an epochal leap forward in China’s land expansion, without resorting to full-scale military and human-wave invasion.

Mobile territory

In an article in the Wall Street Journal on May 21, 2014, Andrew Browne wrote that when the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. launched its first deep-water drilling rig, its chair called it “our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon.”

According to Browne, the novel legal concept put forward by Wang Yilin seemed far-fetched at the time. “Was China, via the leader of a powerful enterprise that acts almost as a branch of the Chinese government overseas, really claiming that an oil platform enjoyed sovereignty  wherever it floats like an offshore island?” Browne asked.

“The answer seems to be yes,” the article said. “The gigantic $1-billion rig was designed to roam across the South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety.

“And it is now parked, like a Chinese territorial outpost, protected by dozens of Chinese vessels and low-flying planes in the face of Vietnamese maritime resistance— and waves of attacks by rioters on Chinese-owned factories on shore.”

In the contest for control over the South China Sea and its resources, the article said, “China has always been careful to use legal constructs to justify its creeping advances, no matter how dubious they may appear to neighbours.”

In response, the article said: “The US has been shifting its own focus to the legal domain. It is insistent that when it comes to maritime rights  and access to resources, the law that truly matters  is international law—and, above all, the Law of the Sea, a 1982 treaty under the auspices of the United Nations. In addition to the US Seventh Fleet and military deterrence, America’s most prominent counter to China’s assertiveness is a legal one. There’s one problem, though: The US Senate has not ratified the treaty, making America one of the few holdouts. 166 other countries, including China, have acceded to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets the global rules for the use of seas and oceans.”

Obama administration officials, according to the article, argue that the lack of ratification means little because the United States upholds the treaty provisions.

Not the same

But the article argues that this is not the same as being an active member of the group, helping shape its legislative agenda and subjecting itself to its mechanisms for resolving disputes.

The article points out that “Washington is in an awkward position of supporting the Philippines in a landmark arbitration action it has brought against China under the treaty, one that challenges the entire legal basis of China’s claims to the South China Sea—its nine-dash line that circles the area—while declining itself to be formally bound by the Law of the Sea. China has ignored the action.”

 

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