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Managing China’s Maritime Interests

Shen Dingli, Associate Dean, Fudan Unversity
August 20, 2013
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China has vast maritime interests. The following constitute China’s six-fold legitimate maritime interests: i) reunifying its offshore islands; ii) safeguarding its territorial waters; iii) assuring its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for its sole use, reasonably and economically; iv) protecting high sea collaboratively for global legitimate access; v) respecting those legitimate maritime rights of other states per relevant international law; vi) resolving maritime disputes with other claimants as peacefully as possible when they may arise, while reserving all means for sovereign purpose. 

Shen Dingli

Shen Dingli

First, China has a large maritime interest in securing its offshore islands. Specifically, the mainland and Taiwan need to reunify, hopefully as peacefully and early as possible. Taiwan as China’s biggest offshore island is of paramount interest to China, in political, economic and strategic contexts. An integrated China will be politically sound and more respected, economically healthier and more competent, and strategically much better situated in its part of the world. This, however, remains Beijing’s challenge, which may entail some decades to manage. Especially, while there have been perennial threats from outside, fundamentally it is up to Chinese across the Taiwan Strait to address their differences and process of reconciliation. 

Second, it is natural that China needs to safeguard all its core interests, including territory, territorial water and space. With China’s sea baseline spreading as long as 18,000 km, it is a daunting task to assure that all its territorial water is under proper sovereign control. When foreign reconnaissance planes and intelligence ships approach quite often, it is important to keep alert, dissuading such behavior while following relevant global codes. It is never easy to achieve both ends at one time, with the 2001 China-US air collision off Hainan Island in mind. Over the past decade, Chinese armed forces seem to have enhanced their capacity and skill to do so. 

Third, with the creation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, China’s maritime economic rights have been much enlarged, in a sense. China has to ensure that this area will be tapped both exclusively and sustainably. China’s EEZ could overlap with that of its close neighbors at sea, which requires proper bilateral talks to divide various overlapping interests. Meanwhile, it is necessary to command UNCLOS in a sensible way. As China revealed its navy’s access to the US EEZ in the Shangri-La Dialogue this June in Singapore, it shall have room to relax its interpretation of the legality of foreign navy’s access to its own EEZ. 

Fourth, assuring free access to high sea is increasingly of China’s vital maritime interest. Given China’s status as both a top exporter and importer, China is gaining wealth through trade from the ocean. In this regard, it is not incomprehensible that China is becoming more interested in building its blue water navy so as to assure that the international code of free access to maritime global common will remain undisrupted. This certainly has particular bearing on China-US relations. On the one hand, China and the US are sharing more common interests so as to roll back the threat of pirating; on the other hand, Beijing strongly perceives Washington’s maritime hegemony due to the latter’s dominance in East Asia, especially in the Taiwan context, which affects the mainland’s freedom of option in dealing with the island province. It is not impossible that the Beijing-Washington security dilemma would generate their arms competition, even unintendedly, though not at a full scale to repeat what occurred between the US and the former Soviet Union. 

Fifth, China’s increasing advance at the sea could affect other countries, and even its legitimate reach could possibly raise concerns from other stakeholders, as has been admitted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in his recent visit to Southeast Asia in early August. Similarly, other countries would also feel that their maritime interests are legitimate, especially in terms of their own EEZ rights. In particular, they are concerned about such rights being challenged by China’s claim through what is called the “nine dashed lines”, an indicative line of 1947, predating the the UNCLOS in 1982. Apparently, the Chinese line overlapped with EEZs of most other South China Sea countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia.  In this sense, the UNCLOS could have brought China more harm than good in the long term given the change of China’s growth, demand and identity. 

When disputing parties claim overlapping rights, it is helpful to use international law to facilitate the settlement: whether the UN law should precede the Chinese claim, or China’s earlier claim legally precludes any future competing demand.  Fundamentally, it is crucial to understand what China claimed in 1947 in terms of fishery and other economic rights in the entire area encircled by the dashed lines, and if they carried any legality. At a time of China’s rapid rise, it is desirable that China presents more confidence through political and diplomatic approaches. 

Last but not least, when facing various maritime disputes, China shall tap a whole set of legal tools. Certainly, peaceful means shall be its top priority. As disputes shall be addressed between and among all direct disputers, those direct claimants shall tackle China’s maritime disputes through bilateral discussions. In the meantime, as the dashed lines have presented China’s vast reach rather close to all other South China Sea countries, they intrinsically generate disputes of similar nature between China and all or most other disputers. In this context, it is not unreasonable that some of them would like to talk to China together. Under both realistic and ideal situations, a layered process of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral talks between and among China and other states would most satisfactorily set the foundation of peaceful settlement of the disputes.

It shall also be pointed out that should all peaceful means be exhausted, non-peaceful means shall remain at China’s legitimate disposal. Neither the South China Sea Code of Conduct nor the Declaration of Conduct shall preclude China’s full range of sovereign defense. 

Shen Dingli is Professor and Associate Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.

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