Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe has reaffirmed its vow to not give up an inch of its territory in the highly disputed South China Sea, or its claim on the independent island of Taiwan, at the annual Xiangshan Forum in Beijing on Oct 25.

The tough talk came only weeks after a near miss between a US Navy destroyer and a Chinese warship in the disputed waters. The US had been probing China’s reaction by sailing through territory China claims as its own. US allies, including Australia and the United Kingdom have also been running their own tests

The stage

The South China Sea is a massive body of water of 3.5 million square kilometres — almost half the size of Australia — in China’s eastern littoral, which abuts a clutch of other island and southeast Asian nations. It is a vast fishing resource and thought to contain significant reserves of oil and gas.

The claim

China claims — falsely, according to most historians — that it has a historic right to the entire SCS. In recent years it has created man-made islands from uninhabited rocky atolls and reefs, some of which were previously almost all underwater, by dredging sand and shipping in landfill. On some of these islands it has reportedly built military facilities, despite Chinese Premier Xi Jinping explicitly promising that it would not.

“The islands in the South China Sea have long been China’s territory. They’re the legacy of our ancestors and we can’t afford to lose a single inch of them,” Wei said.

Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are in all in dispute with China over various parts of the SCS and the rocks and atolls that lie within their claimed areas. There are regular clashes between the fishing fleets of various countries with China which is encroaching on fishing waters under international laws of the sea.

The law 

In 2013, the Philippines, under then-president Benigno Aquino, took China to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In 2015, the court agreed to hear the claim and in 2016 found in favour of the Philippines.

This was an effective ruling against a raft of China’s other territorial claims but under Aquino’s successor, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has not sought to use the ruling against China, instead opting for Chinese investment and trade and playing the region’s wannabe hegemon against its traditional ally the United States.

The other sea

As well as the South China Sea, China has disputes in the East China Sea with both Japan and Taiwan (a country it does not recognise, despite Taiwan having a democratically elected government and its own, substantial military). Under particular dispute are the Senkaku, or Diaoyu Islands (the Japanese and Chinese names respectively).

Australia’s stance

Despite a studied reticence by recent Australian governments to criticise China much at all, the South and East China Sea’s have been the exception, probably because the tens of bullions of dollars in Australian resources that are shipped to China, Japan and South Korea — three out of Australia’s top four trading partners and export destinations. Former foreign minister Julie Bishop has been particularly vocal and was joined last year by Malcolm Turnbull.

Bishop’s successor, Marise Payne, joined Bishop’s critique in her previous role as defence minister, and has continued to hew closely to Australia’s line in her new role, speaking out on the recent near-miss shipping incident.

Payne pithily laid out Australia’s stance at this year’s regional defence summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

“Nations must also have the right to be free from coercion or criticism when they lawfully and reasonably communicate objections about the behaviour of other nations,” she said. “This extends to the reasonable expectation that rules, not the exercise of power, govern our actions.”

Potential flashpoints

There have been a number of heated incidents in recent years, notably the 2014 dispute between China and Vietnam over oil drilling that was eventually resolved with a joint venture; a standoff with the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough Shoal within the archipelago nation’s 200km territorial zone approach; and serial attacks by Indonesia, blowing up Chinese fishing vessels caught in its waters.

But the biggest concern that global strategic analysts continue to have is the friction between China and Taiwan, separated by only 90 km of water. Xi Jinping has vowed to “reunite” the mainland and the independent island that is backed by a US military treaty.

“If someone tries to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese armed forces will take action at any price,” Wei warned at last week’s Xiangshan Forum.

In the age of Donald Trump, things could get nasty very quickly if China tries anything on.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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