China’s Vast Sovereignty Claims Are Becoming Reality

 

On June 13, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin held an extraordinary press conference in which he made a series of audacious statements about the sprawling reach of the Middle Kingdom’s territorial sovereignty. Placed in the context of China’s other recent actions and statements, the incredible size and shape of its regional ambitions are brought into sharp relief.

In simple terms, Beijing is determined to thoroughly dominate its region.

Wang began by addressing Canada’s protests over China’s harassment of its reconnaissance aircraft, which were enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea. It was China, Wang countered, that had reason to be “threatened” by Canada, complaining about “the Canadian military aircraft that flew thousands of miles to harass China at its doorstep.”

This is patent nonsense, of course. China voted for the sanctions in question, together with the “enhanced vigilance” against illicit petroleum transfers the unarmed Canadian plane was deployed to ensure. This wasn’t about threats to China. Rather, it was part of a brazen pattern designed to deter and intimidate foreign ships and aircraft from operating legally in China’s rapidly growing sphere of influence—specifically the international sea and airspace that China wants the world to accept as its own sovereign territory.

And make no mistake, that claimed territory is massive, including well over 3.5 million square miles of the maritime commons and the skies above it. Of course, China has not yet gained complete control over all this watery space, but its effective control is growing and its ambitions are increasingly clear.

Just ask the crew of the Australian P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft that on May 26 was buzzed by a Chinese fighter jet near the Paracel islands. The fighter also released flares near the Australian plane, followed by aluminum strips called chaff, some of which were dangerously ingested into the Poseidon’s engines.

Again, Beijing’s military spokesperson was quick to pin the “dangerous and provocative” label on the target of its aggression, declaring that the unarmed Australian plane “threatened China’s sovereignty” because it “approached China’s territorial airspace” over the Paracels. It is noteworthy that China did not claim the aircraft actually violated its (already exaggerated) territorial claims in the Paracels, but disinformation is central to its rhetorical strategy.

This strategy begins by effectively nullifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which it signed in 1996 and has never formally abrogated. While still giving occasional lip service to this agreement, Beijing pivots to claim “historic rights” over the entirety of its preposterous nine-dashed line around the South China Sea. Under this formulation, this vast maritime commons is unilaterally reclassified as China’s domestic territory, ostensibly marking it outside of UNCLOS’ purview.

China’s government then embarked on a bold campaign to back up its claim by sheer force of overwhelming presence. It did so by building out its occupied rocks and reefs into bases capable of sustaining both forward-deployed military assets and—more immediately—its rapidly expanding maritime militia.

Thus, when a UN tribunal ruled in 2016 that its claims were nonsense, Beijing could simply shrug its shoulders. Having already changed the facts on the reclaimed ground to ensure its smaller neighbors would dance to its tune, China has determined that might will eventually make right in the South China Sea.

Further north, China’s claims rely on a somewhat different obfuscation, as evidenced by Wang’s June 13 comments. Referring to the Canadian flights, he said that “none of the relevant Security Council resolutions mandated any country to deploy forces for surveillance operations in the sea or airspace under the jurisdiction of another country” (emphasis added).

Where specifically was this alleged violation of China’s “jurisdiction”? Wang didn’t elaborate, but we know that China has increasingly expansive views on this, and makes liberal use of smoke and mirrors to justify these as somehow consistent with international law.

We need only to look at another of Wang’s June 13 assertions to see this phenomenon in action: “According to UNCLOS and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores toward the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the Exclusive Economic Zone. China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

Wang’s device here is to conflate the definition of the territorial sea, which extends a mere 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline, with that of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. While UNCLOS does grant a degree of sovereignty over the former (and even that does not prohibit straight-line innocent passage), the latter grants the coastal state only the right to exploit maritime resources, while explicitly retaining the uninhibited freedom of navigation and overflight for “all nations”.

The bottom line here is that China is engaged in a long-term power play. Its mouthpieces will continue to muddy the rhetorical waters, believing that while it cannot win the debate on the legal merits, it can keep its intimidated rivals off-balance while strengthening its military position until such time as it no longer matters what the law says.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Yabbut, but our blue water Navy is all over the pronoun issue. [spit]

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Jailer: The bottom line here is that China is engaged in a long-term power play. Its mouthpieces will continue to muddy the rhetorical waters, believing that while it cannot win the debate on the legal merits, it can keep its intimidated rivals off-balance while strengthening its military position until such time as it no longer matters what the law says.

    Yep. Sun-Tzu would be proud.

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Help Ukraine beat Putin to show what happens to such aggression. Cheap at twice the price. 

    • #3
  4. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    But but but — we burnt up a bunch of billion-dollar kingpin destroyers and crews to sail past Chinese-controlled islands (outside the twelve-mile limit!) thereby defeating Chinese claims to sovereignty!

    • #4
  5. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Hey, this is what the American people voted for…. Biden and the Democrats for the win….  

    • #5
  6. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Help Ukraine beat Putin to show what happens to such aggression. Cheap at twice the price.

    We’ll send Javelins to the dolphins and coral of the disputed areas…

    • #6
  7. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    Joe has been paid through Hunter to ensure that the USA does not effectively oppose this.

    • #7
  8. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Many are not paying attention to the maneuvers by China this month around Taiwan. It’s disturbing because it’s like a repeat of the lead up to WWII – with Russia and on the other side, the Pacific.  They know we have a toothless tiger in the WH. China wants to capture as much of the world’s resources, including under the sea oil. The geo-political shifts on the world stage are increasing at a face pace – thanks for posting this important story.

     

    • #8
  9. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    We’re being destroyed and weakened from within.   The Chinese didn’t even have to help much with the election as the democrats pretty much stole it on their own and most Republicans went along with it.  A communist just won the election in Colombia which nobody is paying attention to.  It was stolen as well.  That takes care of the last real democratic and capitalist country down there.  Europe is not a problem, they’ll self destruct if they don’t have to compete with the US.  But we think we’ll have a fair election.  They stole the last one but now they control every major institution in the US and we’re not doing anything other than acting confident.  It’ll be close, they’ll barely win the Congress but that’s all they need and they’ll steal the presidential election even though they’ll have to cook up some 20% of the vote.  Not a problem.  Will it be too late to do anything?  Free states and pieces of Democrat controlled states must begin to prepare to separate and after they steal the next election begin to move in that direction so if they steal the Presidency we form a new Republic.  Crazy?  Yes but you deal with totalitarians by being prepared and letting them know how prepared.  So what’s new?    We’re dealing with  Democrats the way the Democrats are dealing with China.   Does that work with totalitarians?

    • #9
  10. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    BDB (View Comment):

    But but but — we burnt up a bunch of billion-dollar kingpin destroyers and crews to sail past Chinese-controlled islands (outside the twelve-mile limit!) thereby defeating Chinese claims to sovereignty!

    FONOPS (which do go within the 12 nm limit) are often mischaracterized as being a strategy for winning in the South China Sea, but they really are instead more like a necessary but vastly insufficient rear-guard action. 

    We need more tools in the toolbox.

    • #10
  11. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Jailer (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    But but but — we burnt up a bunch of billion-dollar kingpin destroyers and crews to sail past Chinese-controlled islands (outside the twelve-mile limit!) thereby defeating Chinese claims to sovereignty!

    FONOPS (which do go within the 12 nm limit) are often mischaracterized as being a strategy for winning in the South China Sea, but they really are instead more like a necessary but vastly insufficient rear-guard action.

    FONOPS do not go within 12 unless contesting excessive claims where there is no exo-12 waterspace, for example archipelagic transit or innocent passage.  If sovereignty of a rock etc is the point, passage outside of 12 is good enough for FONOPS.  FONOPS Eldorado Canyon (&c) was predicated not upon 12 miles, but upon the ridiculous “line of death” across the Gulf of Sidra.  That is the sort of “excessive claim” challenged in a FONOPS.

     

    Jailer (View Comment):
    We need more tools in the toolbox.

    Yes and: We need to use the tools we have.

    • #11
  12. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    BDB (View Comment):

    Jailer (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    But but but — we burnt up a bunch of billion-dollar kingpin destroyers and crews to sail past Chinese-controlled islands (outside the twelve-mile limit!) thereby defeating Chinese claims to sovereignty!

    FONOPS (which do go within the 12 nm limit) are often mischaracterized as being a strategy for winning in the South China Sea, but they really are instead more like a necessary but vastly insufficient rear-guard action.

    FONOPS do not go within 12 unless contesting excessive claims where there is no exo-12 waterspace, for example archipelagic transit or innocent passage. If sovereignty of a rock etc is the point, passage outside of 12 is good enough for FONOPS. FONOPS Eldorado Canyon (&c) was predicated not upon 12 miles, but upon the ridiculous “line of death” across the Gulf of Sidra. That is the sort of “excessive claim” challenged in a FONOPS.

     

    Jailer (View Comment):
    We need more tools in the toolbox.

    Yes and: We need to use the tools we have.

    You know your FONOPS. :)

    This is the best guide I’ve ever seen on the topic. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/freedom-navigation-south-china-sea-practical-guide

    I actually gave a copy of this to a Chinese defense attache once when explaining to him how they work.

    • #12
  13. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    BDB (View Comment):

    Jailer (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    But but but — we burnt up a bunch of billion-dollar kingpin destroyers and crews to sail past Chinese-controlled islands (outside the twelve-mile limit!) thereby defeating Chinese claims to sovereignty!

    FONOPS (which do go within the 12 nm limit) are often mischaracterized as being a strategy for winning in the South China Sea, but they really are instead more like a necessary but vastly insufficient rear-guard action.

    FONOPS do not go within 12 unless contesting excessive claims where there is no exo-12 waterspace, for example archipelagic transit or innocent passage. If sovereignty of a rock etc is the point, passage outside of 12 is good enough for FONOPS. FONOPS Eldorado Canyon (&c) was predicated not upon 12 miles, but upon the ridiculous “line of death” across the Gulf of Sidra. That is the sort of “excessive claim” challenged in a FONOPS.

     

    Jailer (View Comment):
    We need more tools in the toolbox.

    Yes and: We need to use the tools we have.

    Also, you may be interested in this post from 2 years ago. A lot about FONOPS:

    https://ricochet.com/753442/u-s-navy-expelled-by-china/

    • #13
  14. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    The tragedy is that I know anything at all about FONOPS.  They are useless except for provoking a desired fight.  God knows they accomplish exactly nothing beyond cancelled maintenance and training, added wear & tear, diversion from actual useful tasking.  And look how much I know!

    Our Navy looks great in PowerPoint.  Same as the training of Afghan forces.

    • #14
  15. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    BDB (View Comment):

    The tragedy is that I know anything at all about FONOPS. They are useless except for provoking a desired fight. God knows they accomplish exactly nothing beyond cancelled maintenance and training, added wear & tear, diversion from actual useful tasking. And look how much I know!

    Our Navy looks great in PowerPoint. Same as the training of Afghan forces.

    At least the Navy is getting training on using the proper pronouns.

    • #15
  16. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    BDB (View Comment):

    The tragedy is that I know anything at all about FONOPS. They are useless except for provoking a desired fight. God knows they accomplish exactly nothing beyond cancelled maintenance and training, added wear & tear, diversion from actual useful tasking. And look how much I know!

    Our Navy looks great in PowerPoint. Same as the training of Afghan forces.

    I tend to describe FONOPS as a necessary but highly insufficient rearguard action. Without FONOPS China’s claims would become undisputed (in a de facto sense), which is an outcome we should continue to resist and counter.

    But no, they don’t do much more than that. As I said previously, we need more tools in the box.

    • #16
  17. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Jailer (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):

    The tragedy is that I know anything at all about FONOPS. They are useless except for provoking a desired fight. God knows they accomplish exactly nothing beyond cancelled maintenance and training, added wear & tear, diversion from actual useful tasking. And look how much I know!

    Our Navy looks great in PowerPoint. Same as the training of Afghan forces.

    I tend to describe FONOPS as a necessary but highly insufficient rearguard action. Without FONOPS China’s claims would become undisputed (in a de facto sense), which is an outcome we should continue to resist and counter.

    But no, they don’t do much more than that. As I said previously, we need more tools in the box.

    “Disputed” by FONOPS is not the same as actual dispute.  Of all the Cold War thinking that we arrogated ourselves to have evolved beyond, this is a piece of it that serves no modern purpose.

    Other than picking a fight.  Eldorado Canyon! 

    I agree about more tools, with previous caveats, etc.

    • #17
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