September 10, 2014
Not content with stealing other people’s territory, the Beijing government is now manufacturing islands to boost its insubstantial claim to ownership of the South China Sea.
The Philippines government has released aerial photographs of Chinese dredgers and construction teams pulling up millions of tonnes of sand and rock from the ocean floor to create islands on Johnson South Reef, which is claimed by the Manila government.
The new island is one of several being created by Beijing, and is within Manila’s 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone,” but about 800 kilometres from the nearest undisputed Chinese territory at Hainan Island.
China’s island manufacturing industry, using reefs and islets as bases on which to create territory, is the latest in a vigorous policy of territorial expansion being pursued by the new Beijing administration of President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping. Since Xi came to power in late 2012, Beijing has been pushing an evermore aggressive and assertive policy over territorial disputes with its neighbours. In the East China Sea this has seen almost daily confrontations with the Japanese Coast Guards and Air Force around and over the Japanese-owned Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands.
In the South China Sea, which China claims to own right down to the territorial waters of Indonesia more than 1,600 kilometres from China, Beijing has leaned heavily on what it judges to be its weaker neighbours, Vietnam and the Philippines. China’s claims also impinge on territory clearly within the boundaries of Malaysia and Brunei.
There have been sometimes violent confrontations with Vietnamese and Philippines coast guards, navies and fishing boats as China has sent maritime surveillance vessels and oil exploration teams into the disputed waters. Beijing has also tried to give a semblance of legality to its claims by setting up a faux “administration,” and establishing this pantomime government on Woody Island, the largest in the Paracel chain of islands.
Xi’s campaign has included threats of war, especially against Vietnam, in state-controlled media. This, together with Xi’s increasingly authoritarian and personality-cult driven domestic policies, is alarming Communist Party elders.
My sources with close links to older leaders of the Communist Party report them as saying Xi is turning out to be a very different and more dangerous person than the one whose rise to the pinnacle of power they supported two years ago. On paper, Xi should have been the perfect person to continue the collegial and collective leadership the party established in reaction to the horrors of the psychopathic rein of regime founder Mao Zedong.
Xi is the son of a hero of the revolution that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949. He diligently worked his way up through the party’s hierarchy, accepting every assignment, however difficult, making no enemies and staying clear of factions within the party.
But even as he surfaced as head of the Communist Party in November, 2012, and China’s President the following March, Xi began to stamp his authority. Using a massive anti-corruption campaign as cover, Xi has removed his rivals for leadership and sent a frisson of apprehension throughout the court of vastly wealthy party princelings that now makes up the aristocracy of the dynasty. At the same time, Xi has ratcheted up restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, tightened China’s occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang, and brusquely dismissed any prospects of political reform, either in China or in subject territories Hong Kong and Macau.
The economic outlook is dim without reforms that are unlikely to be made because they conflict with Xi’s political agenda, and the wealthy are slipping their money out of the country in extraordinary volume. So Xi is relying on the two weapons he has at hand to maintain the right to rule of the Communist Party. One is ever more efficient repression, and the other is manufactured nationalism embossed by patriotic fervour.
Pursuit of Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea is a major element in Xi’s drive to convince the population that the country is re-emerging as the world’s pre-eminent power, a position it held for hundreds of years until it met expansionist European powers in the early 1800s.
Yet Beijing’s claims in both the South China and East China seas are without any legal merit whatsoever. One of the nonsensical affectations of imperial China was that as “the Middle Kingdom” between Heaven and the “barbarian” rest of humanity, anything China knew about it owned. Those bits of the world that China did not know about were in the unfortunate position of not yet being subject to the emperor’s goodwill and munificence.
So all the historic documents to which Beijing refers to back its claim to the South China Sea only describe the ocean, its islands and reefs. None of these documents contains formal claims to sovereignty over this maritime territory. For imperial Chinese, the vassal status of the South China Sea and the littoral states like what is now Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and even the inland states of Southeast Asia like Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, was to be assumed and didn’t need spelling out.
But under modern law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it does need spelling out. The central document of China’s claim at the moment is the so-called “Nine-Dash Line” on a map from 1933 and enclosing almost all the South China Sea. There is, however, nothing of substance to back up this fanciful sketch to make it evidence of a legitimate claim to sovereignty.
Countries with weak legal backing for their aims tend to get more and more belligerent in pursuing their goals. That’s what we are seeing from China, not only in the South China Sea, but also in its general attitude towards its neighbours and the United States.
The prospects are not good. Last month Chinese fighter aircraft intercepted an American reconnaissance plane attempting to track nuclear missile-armed submarines leaving China’s massive new base buried in the sea cliffs at Sanya, on the southern tip of Hainan Island. Dangerously unpredictable contacts like this are likely to become more frequent.
At the moment, there are no signs of China’s elder statesmen trying to control or remove President Xi, though some, such as former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, have made semi-public comments that the anti-corruption drive is going too far. They will be very reluctant to make a strong move against Xi because it would probably bring down the communist one-party state as well. And Xi has already gathered so much power into his own hands, the moment when the need for collective leadership could have been reaffirmed has probably already passed.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
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