I have written before on the subject of China's claims over the South China Sea and on some of the implications that arise from it. I am grateful to Max Boot of Commentary for pointing me in the direction of an article by Jane Perlez in the NYT on this tricky subject which could soon come to dominate the headlines, not least because it will provide a litmus test for Sino-American relations well into the future.
In essence, China claims territorial rights to the entire South China Sea which, quite apart from the zillions of dollars-worth of international trade which flows through it on a daily basis, is believed to contain untold amounts of wealth in the form of mineral, oil and gas deposits in its sea bed. Already, there is a dispute building between China and the the Philippines over the 'Scarborough Islands' - and with a name like that they should jolly well be British, dammit! - with frigates and armed patrol boats facing off against each other.
Hanging over the entire dispute is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The delicious irony is that China has signed it but so far the American Senate has refused to ratify it - since Reagan refused to sign it in 1982! As Max Boot explains:
China has actually signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, but that is not preventing it from asserting a cockamamie “right” to do what it wants within 200 miles of its coast–and within 200 miles of each group of tiny rocks and islands in the South China Sea that Beijing implausibly claims as its national territory. If taken seriously, China’s claims would give it access to the entire sea, even though those waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Law of the Sea Treaty, by contrast, recognizes freedom of navigation for any nation only 12 miles beyond a country’s shoreline.
American policy is in something of a muddle - so no change there, then - because rather wisely they view with suspicion any increase in so-called 'international law' which they suspect is yet another entanglement designed to hog-tie America. However, in this case, they now find themselves unable to deploy the Law of the Sea against China because they are not a party to it!
The Chinese are similarly divided. Their populace is in a state - potentially a dangerous state - of nationalistic fervour over the issue and in this they are joined by the Chinese military who are determined that the Sea be taken under Chinese control in its entirety. The Chinese Foreign Ministry is more cautious and looks for some sort of deal.
Meanwhile the Americans remain determined to resist Chinese ambitions and has indicated that by stationing US marines in north Australia and, a truly mouth-watering irony, is pushing for closer military links with Vietnam whose own relations with China are described as uneasy.
Watch this space!