HONG KONG — This week, President Barack Obama was in Vietnam, where he made the case for stronger economic and security ties between his host and America. It was a welcome message, arriving at a time when China’s ballooning military and stubborn diplomatic rhetoric is causing unease even among former allies and intimate trade partners. The president is now in Japan for a G7 summit, where the same anxieties abound.
Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, the focal point for much of this unease, Chinese cruise ships are helping Beijing stake its claim on disputed islands.
“I love my country! I love Xisha!” Those are the words that Chinese tourists shout as they surround a flag pole on one of the uninhabited Paracel Islands, known to the Chinese as Xisha, the first stop on the cruise.
The second sight is a slab of concrete on a second island, indicating that visitors are standing in a “military forbidden zone.” Selfies by the inscription are encouraged. A lunch of grilled tropical fish is served by some of the 78 people who live there. They are paid 45 renminbi, or just under $7 each day by the Chinese government to remain on the islet. The stay of each “resident” lasts six to nine months.
The final stop is Silver Island, which is home to some 10 people and several construction sites. The Chinese government is building residential and office buildings on the island, and has designated the activity as something to be enjoyed by tour groups. The lesson is that the South China Sea is not only meant for the Chinese military, but also civilians.
The four-day South China Sea cruise, which started quietly in 2013, is operated by a Chinese state-run shipping company based on tropical Hainan Island. Patriots shell out anywhere between $500 and $3,600 for the privilege to travel through disputed waters, but only after they pass a screening test to measure their political leanings.
DIY adventurers are not welcome: this month, when a private sailboat left Hainan Island to visit the Paracel Islands without official approval, those involved were fined ¥29,000 ($4,400), and the vessel was impounded for 30 days. The punishment was a measure to control who is permitted to visit the islets. In particular, foreigners are not welcome.
China claims sovereignty over widely scattered atolls and reefs in the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands, based on a self-declared demarcation called the nine-dash line. Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines all claim some parts within the area.
To strengthen its own territorial claims, Beijing has embarked on a series of land reclamation projects, transforming reefs into landmasses that now have runways and radar facilities. The Great Wall of Sand, as some call it, has strained relations between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Last year, as global defense spending dipped, military budgets in Asia saw a solid increase, mainly fueled by Chinese developments.
The Philippines increased its defense budget by 10 percent in 2015, and will soon be supplied with military equipment from Japan. Tokyo is also in a tug-of-war with Beijing over the East China Sea island chain known as Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese.
Vietnam has recently purchased six fast-attack submarines from Russia. During a news conference in Hanoi, President Obama announced the U.S. will lift an arms embargo on Vietnam that has been in place since 1984.
The action may be in the South China Sea, but observers of East Asian geopolitics also have an eye on The Hague.
Last October, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) began hearing arguments of Philippines v. China, a case brought to the PCA concerning the legality of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines maintains that the nine-dotted line violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines nations’ rights and responsibilities regarding ocean waters. Though the Philippines claims the Spratly Islands based on proximity, they submitted the case with the underlying argument that even if Beijing’s claims to South China Sea islands were legitimate, the nine-dash line still exceeds China’s rights under UNCLOS.
China refused to participate in the hearings, and has stated that the dispute should be settled by negotiations between the two nations involved, not by legal experts in The Hague. This week, the Chinese consulate in Vancouver commissioned a newspaper ad in Canada’s Globe and Mail that stated the case “violates international law.”
The PCA is expected to announce a decision at the end of this month. Will that end the dispute? No. Neither nation will retract the claim of any territory, and diplomatic spats will continue. Any settlement, if it can be carried to term, will not be born in a courtroom.
Beijing is wary of Washington’s intense interest in the region’s developments. The U.S. navy periodically conducts freedom of navigation operations near disputed islands, much to the chagrin of Chinese admirals. The results are frequently predictable—fighter jets are scrambled, and the Chinese navy dispatches part of its fleet to follow their American counterparts. However, last week saw an escalated development. Two Chinese jets intercepted a U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft. The Pentagon called it an “unsafe” action.
The South China Sea sees $5 trillion of maritime trade each year, and is crucial to the economic health of East and Southeast Asian nations. Chinese President Xi Jinping considers the South China Sea as part of China’s “Maritime Silk Road,” a planned route that links ports in China with those along the east coast of Africa via the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, and the Indian Ocean. In particular, the Chinese navy will have access to China’s first overseas installation, which is currently under construction in Djibouti.
The PCA may be attempting to settle a row between two nations, but in point of fact the dispute is between China and everyone else.
In particular, representatives from five Asian nations—Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan—have been watching the hearings closely. Beijing’s attempts to plant fake islands and forced construction sites in the South China Sea have convinced no one of its territorial claims. With the increasing likelihood that China will set up an “air defense identification zone” over at least some portion of the South China Sea, just as it had done over areas contested by Japan in the East China Sea, the slow creep of militarization in a key economic corridor seems unstoppable.
And all the while the Xisha love boats will continue their cruises.