Conflict in the South China Sea
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 5)

The Island Hopping War

Over the past two decades mainstream media in the West suddenly noticed the conflict in the South China Sea. These are a low-level conflicts that have gone on since the end of World War II, involving all of the regional powers (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam) and peripheral nations like Japan, India and the United States. During this timeframe, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), when it lacked the military might to defend its claimed territory, played a brilliant game of pressing its legal claims under international law rather than engaging in military conquest to gain territory. In this context the PRC pushed for control of its so-called ‘U-Shaped’ boundary (see map) and is now clearly asserting its military might in what can be described as the “Island Hopping War.”

Geographical Overview
To understand the context of the various disputes in the region, some basic geography of the South China Sea is required. The semi-enclosed sea covers some 800,000 square kilometers (310,000 square miles), and borders China, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. The South China Sea contains over 250 big and small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs, and sandbars – most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some permanently submerged.

The Paracel and Spratly Islands and their archipelagos (Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal) are strategically the most important island groups in the larger conflict.

South China Sea Disputes
The disputes involve maritime boundaries predicated on control of the islands, islets, cays, reefs, rocks, shoals and banks that make up the various archipelago groups within the South China Sea. Secondary disputes are over navigation through the South China Sea, especially the chokepoints of the Taiwan Strait in the North and the Straits of Malacca in the South.

For more on the history of these disputes, read the complete article online.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Hydrographic Organization

Chinese accounts of the South China Sea go back to at least the second century BCE, and source documents show that it was a sea trade gateway to mainland China. What is clear from this historical record is that, up to the late Middle Ages, the South China Sea was seen as Imperial China’s territory. However, it is unclear if the southernmost maritime frontier was the Paracel Islands or the Spratly Islands – and this has become the basis of legal claims by the PRC.

From colonial expansion in the late 1800s, the collapse of Imperial China in the early 1900s, and then Japanese occupation in the 1930s, Chinese control of the region was lost until the post-WWII era. After the Second World War, France attempted to claim the Island chains based on the convention it had signed at the end of the Sino-French War in 1895, and in context of its reoccupation of French Indochina. With the signing of the ‘San Francisco Treaty’ in 1951 and Japan’s declaration to renounce all territorial claims, the Spratly’s status went into limbo because neither Japan, which had been the occupying power during WWII, nor the Allied nations had stated which nations would inherit the islands. This created a political vacuum that was exacerbated as neither Taiwan nor the PRC were part of the San Francisco Treaty, and set the stage for the post-war competition for control of the islands.

The first sovereignty challenge came in 1956, in what has become known as the “Cloma Incident.” Tomas Cloma, a wealthy Filipino, claimed he had “found” some islands (the Spartlys) in 1947 and on 11 May 1956, with 40 men, took formal possession of these islands calling them “Freedomland.” Cloma’s actions opened up the legal Pandora’s Box of the actual status of the ownership of the various island groups in the South China Sea and, over the next few years, led to a series of claims, counter-claims and occupations of various islands throughout the South China Sea by the PRC, South Vietnam and Taiwan.

Due to the Vietnam War, the 1960s and early 1970s saw little change in the status of the conflict over the various islands, albeit there were occupations and claims and counter claims made by the Phillipines, Taiwan, South Vietnam and the PRC during this time. This all changed with the discovery of potential hydrocarbon riches.

Navy personnel and Philippine MPs at the tiny rock of Scarborough Shoal bearing Philippine flag in South China Sea in 1997. (Source: AFP)

The Resource Issue and Freedom of Navigation
The hydrocarbon potential of the South China Sea was first realized in 1969, but it was not until the end of the Vietnam War that more extensive exploration was conducted. As of 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that there were some “11 billion barrels (bbl) of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves” in the region. That same year, the United States Geological Service (USGS) estimated that the region might have “between 5 and 22 billion barrels of oil and between 70 and 290 trillion cubic feet of gas in as-yet undiscovered resources (not including the Gulf of Thailand and other areas adjacent to the South China Sea).” The U.S. Department of Energy, notes that these resources cannot be considered as commercial reserves because it is questionable if they can be extracted economically. The EIA/USGS figures represent the mid-range of various known estimates, and these numbers vary even further when considering uncontested and contested reserves.

In fact, there are questions as to the reality of the claims of vast hydrocarbon riches in the region. As Professor Nick Owen and Dr. Clive Schofield of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security noted, “the misinterpretation of oil reporting terminology and lack of reliable data” puts the veracity of claimed reserves in question. Moreover, the ability to extract hydrocarbons from deeper waters or far from the shoreline offers serious technical and geological challenges. As the EIA observes, these challenges include strong undersea currents, construction of very long undersea pipelines for gas extraction, and construction of very expensive strong drilling platforms, all of which are required to survive the regular tropical storms and typhoons. The reality of the actual amount of reserves, and the ability to extract them economically, means that any critical analysis of the larger conflict cannot be focused only on the control of energy resources.

Less obvious, but equally important, are the substantial fisheries resources in the South China Sea. Numerous incidents and violations by all sides against their respective fishermen and fisheries have been recorded and in turn have been used as excuses to intervene and occupy islands in the area. The fishery issue also raises the point about freedom of navigation as the South China Sea has been and remains the major sea route for much of the energy and goods imports and exports of the region.

1974 Changes Everything
The period of serious escalation in the South China Sea began in the wake of America’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War with the PRC’s capture of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in January 1974. From then to the present there has been a systematic escalation of PRC pressure through exploration missions and military forays to gain total control of the Spratly Islands and to gain full maritime sovereignty over the territory and seas within the ‘U-shaped’ line. Periodic military clashes occurred after 1974, and in each case the PRC showed its growing naval capacity to defend the territory it had occupied. What is relevant is that all the other littoral nations were also trying to expand into the region at the same time; such as Malaysia’s 1983 occupation of Swallow Reef, or the 1994 attack against a PRC oil exploration vessel by Vietnamese gunboats. In almost every case, the excuse was either the protection of fishermen and their rights, or their ejection from disputed areas.

A clear pattern that emerges from these post-1974 incidents, the PRC coordinated scientific research activities along with military actions to expand existing territorial claims, while arguing its legal claims under international law. This pattern has manifested itself in one of the oddest aspects of the conflict – the occupation and militarization of small rocks at sea and uninhabitable sand banks and reefs (see Figure 6 and 10) in an effort to bolster the legal claims but also to stop rival nations from occupying these geographic features. The most recent example being a dispute in June 2014 near Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands involving the building of an artificial island by the PRC.

Legal Claims
By arguing legal positions, the PRC avoided getting into a larger shooting war that it lacked the military capacity to support. The PRC’s narrative was of ancient historical linkages that were argued on two primary legal principles and one secondary legal principle. The first primary principle is “Acquisition by Discovery,” essentially the PRC claims it is the rightful inheritor of the South China Sea because of the links back to historical records from Imperial China going back some 2,200 years. The second argument was “Acquisition Based on Occupation,” whereby the PRC has claimed that the islands belong to it because of the Communist Government’s jurisdictional claim made on 1 October 1949. This is a claim of national sovereignty.

The secondary principle is predicated on the concept of “Historical Waters;” in that the PRC inherited these waters from Imperial China’s historical use of them. This latter argument is the basis of the ‘U-shaped line’ (also known as the nine-dotted line). The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not include the concept of ‘Historical Waters,’ but it does have a variant that relates to bays and the delineation of territorial seas between nations. This legal ambiguity around the term has led to much debate over its validity, nonetheless the general consensus outside of the PRC is that it cannot be applied in the South China Sea, but the idea of historic waters is relevant to a clear understanding of the role of the ‘U-shaped line.’

A Chinese vessel at Johnson South Reed (Spartly Islands), which is being turned into an island. (Source: Photograph by Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs/AP Photo)

This whole argument is relevant due to the interpretation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ’s- Figure 16). By inhabiting existing islands the baseline for territorial waters can be extended as per Articles 57-75 of UNCLOS, which in turn causes the overlapping of territorial claims in a semi-enclosed sea like the South China Sea. And this is exactly what has happened (see Figure 8) and why we can envision this conflict as the “Island Hopping War.” The post-1974 period, specifically after the 1982 ratification of UNCLOS, allowed the PRC to shift its argument away from the legal historical positioning to simply using UNCLOS as the basis of extending claims beyond maritime territory it already controlled by occupation. The use of EEZs led to a series of competing legal claims by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, with secondary claims from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

For all the legal arguments, claims, counter claims and subsequent actions under international law, little has actually been resolved in terms of what nations control what territory as the PRC has insisted on only bilateral talks in regards to the Spratly Islands, while being unwilling to be tied to UN arbitration. This tactic obviously limits any international settlement of the larger dispute. The PRC’s position from 1949 to 1974 had been defensive in nature given the limitations of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to project naval power. After 1974 the PRC took on a much more aggressive stance as its naval capacity slowly grew, but only when it judged the international environment to be permissive of its military actions. Otherwise it used international law as a means to legitimize its actions, while continuing to gain further control of the South China Sea.

With the end of the Cold War and changing geopolitical power in the 1990s, the post-2000 period saw the PRC’s slow but sure upgrading of the PLAN to the point where the PLAN was capable of defending PRC interests in the South China Sea. In the 2010s the PRC can simply chose a military option for control of the region.

Liaoning (16) at sea.
Liaoning (16) at sea.

The Military Situation
Prior to the 1980s the limited naval capability of the PLAN led it to use Soviet style defensive naval warfare. The 1980s saw a change in doctrine to now include ‘green-water’ defense. Part of this reasoning was the occupation of the Paracel and Spratly Islands – the PLAN had to be able to offer some sort of naval support for the beached garrisons. This led to an expansion of its naval capability to include large ocean going vessels.

By the mid-2000s, the PLAN was pushing for a full-blown ‘blue-water’ capability that could match any of the PRC’s littoral neighbours. The PLAN achieved this goal with the commissioning on 25 September 2012 of the Liaoning (16) – the ex-Varyag.

With the launch of the Liaoning, the PRC joined a handful of nations (Brazil, the USA, UK, France, India, Italy, Spain and Russia) that have long-range fixed-wing naval air capability (Japan, Thailand and Australia only have helicopter carriers). Then in 2013, China announced it had begun development of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to complete with the U.S. Navy’s fleet carriers. The projected launch date is 2020.

Over the past two decades, with the U.S. distracted with the Global War on Terror, and the thawing of Russian-Sino relations, there have been no naval rivals to the PLAN in the South China Sea. India is the only other nation in the area that has fixed-wing carrier capability, and can certainly be seen as potential spoiler to PRC plans, given India’s statements supporting Vietnam. However, the election of Narendra Modi in May of 2014 has brought India and China closer, thus any threat of the Indian Navy intervening in the South China Sea has been somewhat mitigated for the present.

Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal in the Spartly Island chain. (Source: Unidentified Internet Photo)

The PLAN is now the most powerful naval force in the area and intends to make sure that its naval capacity cannot be rivaled. In the immediate future, we will see the  flexing its military muscle against all perceived opponents of its geo­strategic goals in the “Island Hopping War.”  

Sunil Ram is an Adjunct Professor at the American Military University.
© FrontLine Defence 2015