China can claim many titles; largest economy, largest population, largest refuge of Mao Zedong posters etc. Yet, despite all the greatness already achieved, it does not seem to be enough. China is now seeking further greatness in what is not necessarily theirs. First, areas of the Himalayas, then Tibet, and now China is looking out onto the horizon and stealing from Neptune himself.
What exists there?
A finite expanse of water and land that contains an approximated 11 billion barrels of oil.
Who, under international law, legally owns that expanse?
So how does China factor into this?
China, in many ways, is like Gollum. Our favourite tortured Lord of the Rings hero-slash-villain, who emerges from the river bed and whispers, “my precious…” And who could blame them? The growth of the Chinese empire would rival the land that the Han’s conquered. China holding up yet another middle finger to their Century of Humiliation, and the surrounding countries responding to China with the same.
While China’s coast spans over approximately 20% of the South China Sea, they currently claim to own more than 80% of it. Other countries that lay on the perimeter of the South China Sea include Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. How can you divide such an area between so many countries in such an enclosed space? In 1982, at a UN conference on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it was decided that the best way for this to be managed was the enforcement of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 12 nautical miles from a countries coast at highest tide is considered that country’s share of land/water ownership.
China doesn’t seem to think so. Instead, they have ignored these “guidelines” and created a more “suitable” boundary of distinction. They have done this by creating artificial islands to coincide with “official” briefs which means that China, by virtue of owning islands in the South China Sea, will also own 12 nautical miles of sea around those islands. To support their claim to this “newly found” land, China has established habitation on the islands including flight pathways, military training grounds and even schools for children of the militia. All of this, along with the development of a new Chinese map that includes the “nine-dash-line,” – a simple outline of China’s new territories. The cow’s tongue of Chinese “owned” sea is clearly outside of UNCLOS criteria, questioning the effectiveness of UNCLOS laws in the first place.
China has made it clear that they have no care in the world about what others may think is, or is not, legally theirs. Clashes between Vietnam and China over the ownership of the Spratly Islands is just one example of this. In accordance with UNCLOS laws, the Spratly Islands are within Vietnam’s EEZ, however, China demands that these islands, with their abundance of fishing stock and a potential continental shelf that may house an untapped oil supply, is theirs. Along with any gold rings that are laying in their depths, apparently.
Globally difficult to manage is the balance between political and economic relations. China have set themselves up to be the next world hegemon and if you try to take away their toy, they will go from Smeagol to Gollum in an instant, or, in plainer terms, cut off their trade route. Manila is one example of an unfortunate victim of this, after defending their territory by dumping a rusty old ship in the Scarborough Shoal as an act of defiance. They tried calling upon the US to be involved after the fallout, but doing that is like praying for your loyal seamen to take revenge, then realising it was a stupid move because now who’ll supply you with all of your rum? The US itself, although they have alliances with a few Southeast Asian countries, is hesitant to get involved for fear of displeasing the almighty eastern economic Control Hub Involved with New Areas. However, America being America, decided to test the waters (pun intended) nonetheless. Steering a ship of their own, America crossed into the disputed waters around the Spratly Islands and were met with a rather disgruntled China who declared it as a threat to their national sovereignty.
China’s non-committal acceptance of UNCLOS laws and the ambiguity in their movements around the seas, makes this outrage rather hypocritical. The American Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said it plainly, “China can’t have it both ways”. They cannot state UNCLOS laws to protect their national sovereignty and then reject these same laws when building artificial islands. In other words, you can’t have Smeagol without Gollum tagging along as well.
Rhiannon Coleman-Heard is a Political Science/International Relations and Asian Studies student at UWA who can’t seem to draw the line between pop-culture and reality.