(Editorial note: The ongoing disputes over the South China Sea are controversial, as is the arbitration initiated by the Philippines. The coming decision of the arbitration will lead to a new round of controversies and debates. IPP Review is a platform for all interested parties to express their opinions, and hence we welcome contributions which reflect these different viewpoints. This article reflects a perspective from China, and it should not be seen as representing IPP Review’s position.)
The US put forward “freedom of navigation” in 2010 as a core principle supporting its pivoting to Asia strategy. Since then, it has repeatedly played up the issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. In doing so, the US has three ulterior motives. First, the US attempts to portray its military presence in the South China Sea as the guardian of freedom of navigation and overflight. But that is no different from the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. Second, the US seeks to stigmatize China’s growing maritime strength as a major threat to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. This is nothing but a new version of the so-called China threat theory. Third, the US aims to stir up trouble between countries in the region and make excuses for its intervention in the South China Sea.
As a matter of fact, the fundamental guarantee of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not the US or its military presence, but China, the coastal states, and regional countries’ commitment to peace, stability, prosperity, and development.
After the end of the Cold War, the South China Sea has been generally stable, and disputes were properly managed. This is largely owing to the joint efforts of China and the ASEAN states. A peaceful and stable South China Sea is vital to China and serves the common interest of all coastal states as well as users of the shipping lanes.
For China, the current top priority is economic development and people’s well-being. The Chinese people are striving to realize the “two centenary goals,” namely, to double the 2010 GDP and per capita income and to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects in 2020 when the Communist Party of China celebrates its centenary; to turn China into a modern socialist country that is strong, prosperous, democratic, culturally-advanced, and harmonious, and to realize the Chinese dream of the great national renewal in the middle of the century when the country marks its centenary. None of these can be achieved without a peaceful and stable regional and international environment. Therefore, the last thing China wants is chaos or armed conflict in the region, in particular, the South China Sea.
As such, China has always respected and upheld the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, as it is not only required by international law, but is also in line with its own interests. The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping routes, with half of all commercial ships (over 100,000 per year) and 1/3 of global sea cargo passing through. Every day, 15 million barrels of oil reach East Asia via the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea, which is three times more than the amount via the Suez and over five times that of the Panama Canal. For China, over 40 percent of foreign trade and over 80 percent of oil imports relies on the South China Sea. China would be the first to defend freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea should anyone attempt to undermine it.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping routes, with half of all commercial ships (over 100,000 per year) and 1/3 of global sea cargo passing through.
In fact, thanks to the joint efforts of China and the coastal states, freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that has long been enjoyed by ships and planes, including those from the US, has never been an issue. Committed to regional peace, stability, prosperity and development, China and the coastal states provide a fundamental guarantee to free and safe shipping through their cooperation in upholding freedom of navigation and overflight. Apart from being a contracting party to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), China has also participated in anti-piracy and international escort missions in the Gulf of Aden. All these speak to China’s contribution to safeguarding freedom of navigation and overflight.
No country should intervene in the South China Sea issue and sabotage China’s sovereignty and security under the pretext of freedom of navigation and overflight. Recently, some countries have attempted to put together joint patrols and have frequently sent their military vessels and aircraft into the South China Sea. They are doing nothing else but close reconnaissance of China, flexing military muscles, and staging political and military provocations. Such operations severely undermine China’s sovereignty and security, embolden the hubris of some countries, and increase tensions. More dangerously, such operations are highly provocative in nature and will lead to close military contact, which might result in tragic incidents of misfiring. No one wants such scenarios to happen.
The US has been portraying itself as a guardian of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), claiming that its freedom of navigation operations uphold UNCLOS’ integrity and challenge excessive claims. But the truth is the opposite. First of all, the US rushed into the freedom of navigation operations in 1979 when UNCLOS was about to come into force. The US intention was to challenge the maritime legal regime set up by UNCLOS and, in particular, the enlarged maritime rights of coastal states as well as the UNCLOS provisions not in line with US domestic laws. Second, the term “international waters” was coined by the US in total disregard of the UNCLOS concepts. The term “international waters” makes no distinction between high seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), so when the US enters other countries’ EEZs, it can simply put aside the UNCLOS requirement on respecting the rights of coastal states such as the sovereignty and security when exercising freedom of navigation and overflight. Third, the US combines innocent passage in the territorial sea and transit passage in the archipelagic sea into its freedom of navigation operations, so as to expand the applicability of freedom of navigation and overflight. But it goes beyond the provisions of both UNCLOS and international customary law. Fourth, the freedom of navigation operation actually uses military means to advance claims not recognized by UNCLOS. It is an example of modern-day gunboat diplomacy, or at least using coercive means to achieve diplomatic goals. It violates UNCLOS and also the basic principles of international relations enshrined by the UN Charter.
Ever since 1979, the US has challenged maritime claims of over 40 countries by its notorious freedom of navigation operations. Without even ratifying UNCLOS, the US has acted as the law enforcer and put itself above UNCLOS and international law. Gunboat diplomacy has long been discarded by international laws and practices, and the US should have stopped doing so. The US alone cannot establish an international practice or international law, but what the majority of developing countries do can be regarded as true international practice and international law.
Some countries outside the region, like Australia and some European countries, are also playing up the issue of freedom of navigation and overflight. But they are just dancing to America’s tune and trying to be politically correct in America’s eyes. In fact, Europe and Australia share more common interests with China on freedom of navigation and overflight. They all have major trade relations with China and a huge part of that trade volume goes through the South China Sea. From that point of view, China, Europe and Australia all have a lot at stake in maintaining genuine freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is an artery for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the endeavor for common development. Genuine freedom of navigation and overflight is the legal foundation for China to keep this artery unobstructed. By no means will China allow the Belt and Road initiative be stopped at the South China Sea.