Two moves by Chinese authorities over the past few weeks have raised concerns amongst China’s neighbors. In late November, China issued a new passport that includes a nine-dashed line incorporating most of the South China Sea — the same lines that are depicted on many official Chinese maps. This move has drawn strong condemnation from others in the region, namely Vietnam and the Philippines, who are two of six claimants to territories in the South China Sea that China claims solely as its own. The new passports also claim disputed territory along the unresolved Sino-India border. The other move involves an initial report by Reuters that authorities from Hainan Island, as of January 1, will intercept and board foreign vessels that they deem to be operating illegally in Chinese sovereign waters. Later reports by Reuters explain the situation thus: “Police in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan will board and search ships which illegally enter what China considers its territory in the disputed South China Sea, state media said on Thursday, a move likely to add to tensions.”
Both of these moves captured attention in the region and here in the United States. Vietnam refused to stamp the new passports as has the Philippines, and India called the passport map “unacceptable.” It is worth noting that India and China are scheduled to continue negotiations this month regarding their unresolved border and no doubt the passport issue will be raised, at a time of the 50th anniversary of the war. Other countries in the region have also expressed concerns, including Southeast Asia’s largest economy Indonesia, and Taiwan. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan warned of the South China Sea becoming Asia’s “Palestine” and that “Asia was entering its most ‘contentious’ period” in an interview with the Financial Times. However, Thailand, a treaty ally of the United States, has not expressed misgivings about the new passports, and Thailand is a not a claimant to territories in the South China Sea. Victoria Nuland, U.S. Department of State spokeswoman, said on Thursday said that the United States had already raised the passport issue with Chinese counterparts, and, to date, was seeking further clarification on the Hainan declaration at “the Deputy Assistant Secretary level, and today at the level of Assistant Secretary Campbell.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry, on the issue of the Hainan authorities, stated that “Every country has the right to carry out maritime management according to law.”
Unfortunately, it is often all too easy to jump from 1 to a 100, omitting to connect the numbers in between. Initial readings of Chinese authorities’ intentions to board vessels in the South China Sea could lead one to assume that it is only a matter of time before such an incident leads to a major international confrontation. However, analysis by Taylor Fravel from MIT presents a more nuanced and detailed picture of what may be actually unfolding regarding the South China Sea. It appears that the Hainan announcement only pertains to twelve nautical miles around Hainan Island, not the entire South China Sea and similar decrees have been released by local authorizes in Zhejiang and Hebei. The Fravel article concludes that “In sum, although the regulations establish a legal basis for Hainan’s public security border defense units to board or seize foreign vessels on or near disputed islands, they are unlikely to result in a major change in China’s behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.” James Fallows writing in The Atlantic has a similar position. Regarding the passport issue, the United States is accepting the new versions, but this story is another in a long list of what many in the region regard as Chinese unilateral actions at the expense of others.
It appears that the fundamental problem is the opaqueness behind China’s actions. As outlined above there is a lot of speculation, but with no clear Chinese clarification on these issues. This year there was a stand-off lasting more than two months between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, today China and Japan continue a tense “cat and mouse” interaction in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The long-term outcome of Chinese unilateral actions like the two highlighted above remain to be seen. It is clear that they do unnerve other states in the region. Looking ahead much depends on how governments, policy makers and public opinions across the region respond. However, there does appear to be a potential for stormy waters ahead on the horizon.