Since I first wrote about this issue (see previous post on Spratly Islands), this issue has taken on legal dimensions that are both interesting and pertinent to all coastal countries in the world. How far does your country’s continental shelf extend? In a series of laws negotiated by the UN during the 1950′s and 1960′s (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea UNCLOS) but only coming into effect upon the ratification by the 60th Nation State in 1994, the issue has been defined as below:
1.In a zone of the high seas contiguous to its territorial sea, the coastal State may exercise the control necessary to:
(a) Prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary regulations within its territory or territorial sea;
(b) Punish infringement of the above regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea. 2.The contiguous zone may not extend beyond twelve miles from the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.
3.Where the coasts of two States are opposite or adjacent to each other, neither of the two States is entitled, failing agreement between them to the contrary, to extend its contiguous zone beyond the median line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial seas of the two States is measured.
While this article of international law clearly states a limit, there are other points of the law and other conventions that also establish economic zones of 200 miles and territorial waters of an additional 12 miles. So to clear the confusion, I found this very useful image to explain exactly what is the most common interpretation of the law by signatory nations.
So when China claims that it has a right to a 200 mile continental limit, what it is really talking about, it seem, is an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles officially acceded to it as a signatory nation of UNCLOS.
My confusion has been compounded by a spate of articles in mainstream newspapers concerning this issue, in with they imply that China is somehow being very unreasonable to ask for rights in the South China Sea to the limit of 200 nautical miles for economic purposes. If one thinks about it, if the rights and privileges of any country extended only 12 miles off its coastline, then Cuba has a right to set up a military outpost on the Mexican Baja Peninsula! This would also imply that countries like Angola and East Timor do not have exclusive rights to the oil located on their continental shelf within their Exclusive Economic Zone, from which they currently finance 100% of their official economy. Even for the USA, the implications of arguing against a minimum and internationally agreed continental shelf are stupid, since a lot of US oil and fishing occurs in these very waters.
The Politics of the South China Sea
The fact that China claims the right of the 200 miles does not however denigrate the rights of its neighbors. To date at least 7 countries have various and mostly conflicting claims on the wealth of the South China Seas, including its estimated 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas, not to mention the delicacies of the ocean like giant clams and rare corals. UNCLOS is specific that in zones of overlapping rights, countries have to enter an arbitration or negotiation to agree mutual zones of activity. A recent example of this was when Democratic Republic of Congo loved an official request for arbitration with the Council of the Law of the Sea to dispute Angolan oil exploration within its 200 miles exclusion zone in 2007. A multi-country arbitration in the South China Sea would provide a nonpolitical basis for resolution of such a complex and historic conflict, and in my opinion, would be the best way to proceed.
My recommendation is based on the following analysis. The USA and China are currently engaged in a competition to secure the Asia-Pacific region, based on a Chinese decision to significantly upgrade its naval capacities and outreach globally but particularly in the Pacific region, and a mirror response from the US. President Obama has declared the Asia-Pacific the most important region in terms of geostratey for the US in the coming decade. Secondly, the US has fought and lost both the Vietnamese and Korean wars in an effort to contain Chinese propagated communism in this very region, yet today South Korea and Vietnam are struggling to develop their economies and their countries on a western model. No comment on North Korea. Philippines is a long-term US ally and a lot of analysts feel that Philippines has no politics other than those dictated by the US – a total stooge. Whatever the reality of that situation, as a sovereign country, Philippines has a right to the same laws as China. However, the impression is that Philippines is stroking the fires of dispute in the South China Sea specifically on the instructions of the US. Ok. True or not, this in no way denigrates their rights to the continental shelf, but it does put China on a different footing that might not seek accommodation as a first course of action. Thirdly, Australia and the US have just signed a treaty of cooperation upgrading their already cooperative relationship to extend an umbrella of security and domain north of Australia over the Southern Pacific. This makes China see RED!
China might feel surrounded or indeed ganged-up on. It might feel that its recent decision to upgrade its naval capacities has come too little and too late and it might decide to step up its program on this count. It might also approach centrist countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to moderate the US outreach. Will they bite? Not sure. What is for sure is that the only non-confrontationalist solution to the South China Sea issue is perhaps to convene an arbitration between those countries directly involved! A mechanism already exists, why not use it?