While Americans have been focused on the Middle East, the situation in the South China Sea has heated up. Beijing’s latest moves to push it its claims include the deployment of several new oil rigs into various parts of the South China Sea. As Chinese officials have noted in the past, Beijing views these rigs as “mobile national territory.”
China has also produced a new map of the region that now includes a 10-dash line (rather than the previous version with nine dashes) and has aroused attention in Manila and elsewhere. The new map makes clear once again that China views the South China Sea area not as an appendage, but as a fundamental part of Chinese territory. The new map applies Chinese names to virtually every feature in the area; as Australian professor Carl Thayer notes, “China appear to be laying the ground for claiming sovereignty of every feature, such as reefs, shoals as well as rocks, islets and islands.”
The fact that sovereignty over these features is disputed is well known. Whether it is nine dashes or 10, the crux of the problem remains the nature of the Chinese claim to the waters the dashes enclose. The U.S. views these as mostly international waters, but from all appearances and in the absence of any clarification to the contrary, the Chinese regard the waters as their own “blue soil.”
China’s increasingly assertive stance and its new map have even provoked an Indonesian response. Whereas Jakarta has previously shown little concern for its own stake in the South China Sea—beyond a protest of Chinese claims filed with the United Nations in 2010—it has been reminded recently of the implications for rights Indonesia claims around the gas-rich Natuna Islands. While it continues attempts to exercise regional diplomatic leadership on the dispute, as insurance for its own claims, Indonesia appears to be expanding its defense infrastructure in the area.
Beijing appears to be little interested in any kind of compromise. It has refused to accede to arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, even as the Philippines has brought forth its case.
More disturbing, China’s actions come on the heels of Xi Jinping’s speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA), where he challenged the current, U.S.-led regional security infrastructure. Xi declared in his keynote address to the Conference, “We should respect and look after the reasonable security concerns of every country. It is disadvantageous to the common security of the region if military alliances with third parties are strengthened.”
American and Asian analysts meanwhile remain concerned about the prospect of China declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, comparable to the one it declared last year over the East China Sea.