Posts Tagged ‘fishing rights’

A Look at What Is Ahead Now That Brexit Talks Have Started

June 19, 2017

BRUSSELS — The talks on Britain’s exit from the European Union finally started Monday when EU negotiator Michel Barnier said “Welcome David” to his counterpart, David Davis, and led him toward a huge oval table at the European Commission headquarters.

As the negotiations kick off, here’s a look at some of the major issues the sides face.



They will first have to unravel the British from the EU, which will be challenging to say the least. That will involve everything from deciding what waters each side can fish in to how nuclear agreements should be renegotiated. Only when there is “sufficient progress” does the EU want to look at creating a new relationship with Britain on things like trade and migration. Britain hopes the two themes — divorce terms and future relationship — can be discussed in parallel.



While Britain has struggled to agree on and present a coherent list of demands, the 27 EU nations have had one message all along — in the words of Barnier on Monday: “We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit.” It means clarifying the fate of EU citizens in Britain and vice versa, how to manage the border between Ireland and the U.K., and how much Britain will pay.



The EU says Britain can’t leave without settling its bill, paying up for all its commitments that are still ongoing, including projects that might reach into the next decade, as well as the U.K.’s share of EU staff pensions. EU officials have put the figure at around 50 billion euros ($63 billion) while other estimates by think tanks and in the media go as high as twice that amount. As in any divorce, count on both sides to be picky in splitting the goods and dues.



The EU says it will not compromise on its core “four freedoms”: free movement of goods, capital, services and workers. Britain insists that it must regain the right to control immigration and end free movement from other EU countries into Britain. May says Britain will leave the EU’s single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union, but nonetheless, somehow, wants “frictionless” free trade.



Even though May triggered the two-year process on March 29, negotiators will have to get a full agreement much faster than March 2019. EU nations and the European Parliament will have to approve any future deal and that can take months. EU officials have therefore put the realistic deadline at October — and at the latest November — of 2018. If no deal is struck by then, the sides may have to create a transitional deal, possibly prolonging some of the current relationship.

If Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal, that would create huge uncertainties for citizens and businesses as well as issues like global security. How bad that would be in reality is anyone’s guess.


Philippine President Duterte, In China, Says ‘No’ To Military Alliance, Joint Oil Exploration with China

October 19, 2016
President Duterte gestures to a crowd of well-wishers as he and members of the Philippine delegation together with Chinese officials led by Ambassador Zhao Jianhua  walk along Wangfujing street on their way to the Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant in Beijing yesterday.

BEIJING – President Duterte may have decided to stop the war exercises between the Philippines and the US, but he is also not keen on pursuing a military alliance with China or with any other country “to avoid adding fuel” to what he described as a “volatile” world.

Duterte also ruled out discussions on joint oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea during his four-day state visit here.

In a press briefing, the President said the Philippines would not meddle in brewing conflict among some countries because it would not promote anything positive.

“There will be no military alliances entered into. There will be no military alliances broken. What I am just saying is that we are not interested in adding fuel to what is already a volatile world,” he said.

“There is no such thing as allowing the missiles here or missiles there, I would not allow it,” Duterte said yesterday when asked if he would forge a military alliance with China.

“I am not into that. And if you talk about America, Russia, vis-à-vis China, Great Britain, France, Iran, Pakistan, India, there is a conflict going on, it’s getting hot,” he added.

Duterte said he believes there is no point in acquiring powerful bombs or missiles as an international conflict could “end the world.”

“Why should I borrow missiles or ask for nuclear bomb? For what? They were just crazy people who would want to pull a stack on a matter of national pride,” the Philippine leader said.

“And if you think that if those nuclear bombs will explode at the same time, then we might not be able to board our last men out of China because it will just simply end the world,” he added.

Early this month, Duterte said he would end the joint military drills with US forces after American officials called him out for the spate of killings tied to his brutal war on drugs.

He said he has no plan to cut alliances with the US but maintained that the Philippines should follow a more independent foreign policy.

Early this month, Duterte expressed doubts on the importance of military alliances, which he believes would no longer matter in the age of advanced weapons.

“I do not mean to cancel or abrogate the military alliances but let me ask you: do you really think we need it? If there is a war, if we engage in skirmishes, do you think we really need America?” Duterte said in a speech delivered last Oct. 11.

“Do we need China and Russia – for that matter, do we need somebody? If they fight, if they launch ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) or Poseidon (either a type of US military aircraft or a discontinued US ballistic missile), there will be no more American aid to talk of. There will no more be a country strong enough to rule,” he added.

“When that time comes, we won’t need anything but a priest. If you want, you can recite the mi ultimo adios (National hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s ‘My Last Farewell’).”

Duterte said he would rather go for alliances that would promote the health, education and the welfare of the next generation.

President Duterte receives an architect’s perspective and blueprint of the proposed drug addiction treatment center to be donated by the Friends of the Philippines Foundation during a lunch meeting at Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant in Beijing yesterday.

Joint exploration

Duterte also said the issue on joint oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea would not be discussed during his four-day state visit here.

He explained he is not authorized to discuss the issue because the sharing of resources requires the approval of Congress and “every Filipino involved.”

“No, I don’t think that will be right,” the President said when asked whether he would bring up joint exploration in the West Philippine Sea in his meetings with Chinese leaders.

“If you plan to give up something or if you try to share what you have if it is really yours, then you cannot talk about it openly on your own. This has to be with the consent of Congress and everybody, every Filipino involved in town,” he added.

“So at this time, I am not empowered to do that, I cannot give something and I cannot also add what has not been given me.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. echoed the President’s position, saying it is not the time to discuss the issue.

“We’re not talking about joint exploration. This is not the time to talk about joint exploration. We’re just simply talking about how we can improve better ties with China without eroding or compromising our disputes, which is just a small portion of our relationship with China,” Yasay said in a separate interview.

Earlier reports said officials of the Duterte administration and the Chinese government are in talks to forge a deal that would allow them to jointly explore oil or natural gas in the West Philippine Sea. According to the report, the deal is being finalized and may first cover uncontested areas.

Fishing rights

While the joint exploration of oil and gas is not in the agenda of his state visit, Duterte said he would mention the issue on the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to Chinese leaders “in passing.”

“It’s (issue) very important because it’s livelihood. We’ll not talk hard on who owns what because that is contested,” Duterte said.

He had announced he would ask Chinese leaders to allow Filipino fishermen to enter the shoal, which is located 124 nautical miles from  Zambales. Chinese ships took control of the shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy and have since maintained presence in the area.

Although well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, Panatag Shoal is covered by China’s nine-dash line, a territorial claim that covers about 90 percent of the resource-rich West Philippine Sea and South China Sea. The legality of the claim was challenged by the Philippines before an international court in 2013.

Last July, the tribunal based in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and declared that China’s nine-dash line has no legal basis.

The court also ruled that the Philippines has sovereign rights over the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, and Recto (Reed) Bank, all in the waters of Palawan.

While the tribunal said it was not ruling on sovereignty issue over Panatag Shoal, it declared that China had violated its duty to respect the Filipinos’ traditional fishing rights by preventing them from entering the shoal.

The West Philippine Sea row is expected to be tackled during Duterte’s meetings with Chinese officials today. The Philippine president is scheduled to hold separate meetings with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang.

“We would like to thank the People’s Republic of China for allowing us to visit the country and to have a wide ranging bilateral talks regarding shared mutual benefits and other issues that are of importance to the regional peace and security particularly the Southeast Asia,” Duterte said.

“We have identified broad outlines, there can be no specific agreements at this time and we would be glad to engage them and every other while we can to enhance the peace of the region,” he added.

South China Sea: Danger of Conflicts Over Fishing Rights, China’s Expansionism

September 1, 2016

By Stratfor

Conflict and Cooperation in the South China Sea

AUGUST 31, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

  • The Philippines will continue to use a carrot-and-stick strategy toward China in the South China Sea, choosing not to play up its recent victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in order to reach a compromise.
  • Fishing around the Scarborough Shoal will be a key area of cooperation that will move forward through bilateral talks.
  • The true resolution of boundary disputes in the region, however, will continue to be elusive, perhaps even delayed by agreements meant to defuse tension.


Countries with competing claims in the South China Sea are still adjusting to a landmark ruling on maritime boundaries in the region. The Permanent Court of Arbitration announced July 12 its decision to invalidate China’s broad claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruling in particular that the Scarborough Shoal has no islands and therefore no exclusive economic zone to claim. The decision marked a victory for the Philippines, for although Manila also counts the shoal as its own, Beijing occupies it. At the very least, the Philippines has managed to ensure that China cannot legally control the shoal and, by extension, has created an opening for other states lining the South China Sea to chip away at China’s position under UNCLOS.

But since its victory, the Philippines has played its hand carefully. Manila knows its position is weak — China’s military is vastly more powerful than its own. But the Philippines has gained an unprecedented (even if chiefly symbolic) win on the international stage. The ruling could cause significant headaches for China, and by conspicuously refraining from touting the ruling, Manila is incentivizing Beijing to offer compromise and accommodation. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for example, has said he will not bring up the ruling at the September summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By doing so, Manila can preserve its core interests and gain some concessions from China while continuing to cooperate with Japan, the United States and other outside powers. Within the context of this new dynamic, talk of an accord between Manila and Beijing has centered on one topic in particular: fishing.

Fisheries are no small matter in the South China Sea. An estimated 1.72 million fishing vessels ply its waters, employing some 5.4 million people. Physical confrontations with patrol vessels around the sea’s many contentious features — and in the waters of littoral states — are common and constantly risk sparking larger crises. The UNCLOS ruling specifically addressed the issue by ruling that China’s moves to block Philippine vessels from fishing around the Scarborough Shoal since May 2012 were illegal.

Initially, Beijing responded to the court’s decision by doubling down. On Aug. 2, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court gave a ruling of its own stating that authorities have the right to prosecute foreign fishermen caught in waters claimed by China. The topic came up several times in a meeting a week later between Chinese officials and Philippine special envoy and former President Fidel Ramos. There are signs that policy circles in Beijing are picking up on the subject as well. Ramos spoke with Wu Shicun, the president of China’s top think tank on South China Sea studies, who said Beijing and Manila could explore ways to open the Scarborough Shoal to fishermen and jointly develop aquaculture around the sea’s disputed features. Duterte then called on China on Aug. 23 to allow Philippine fishing vessels into the contested waters. On Aug. 29, China responded in kind: Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said Beijing would hold bilateral talks and consider allowing Philippine fishermen access to the Scarborough Shoal. Talks have not yet begun, and it is still unclear precisely what form joint access would take (options run the gamut from simple access to a formal, jointly managed fisheries zone). An agreement, however, would help prevent short, sharp conflicts over fishing and could offer a model for cooperation elsewhere in the South China Sea.

Why the Fish Fight?

The fishing industry, though not glamorous, is inherently geopolitical. Wild fish are considered a “fugitive resource”: Like game animals, water or air, they move from place to place of their own accord. Fishing vessels then must pursue their catch, often without taking heed of borders or jurisdiction. And fluctuations in catch or limitations in fishing have broad ramifications for littoral nations, pushing vessels farther and farther from their home banks. Because the fishing industry employs so many in an informal capacity, what hurts fishermen hurts all levels of society, from rural constituencies to enormous business conglomerates.

Every maritime region has had flare-ups over fishing before, but the unique geography of East Asia raises the risk of such disputes — and their stakes. The Western Pacific differs from most of the Pacific Rim in that it has wide continental shelves, with numerous coastal waterways and deeply incised gulfs. The coasts of North and South America, by contrast, have narrow continental shelves and relatively simple coastlines. This makes delineating territory in the Asia-Pacific more difficult, especially since most waterways are not broad enough to allow many of the region’s nations to claim full 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) without bumping up against their neighbors’. Only Russia, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia have clear EEZ claims, and those exist only in some stretches of sea. Every other state has had to negotiate its EEZ with the countries around it, a process that has left many boundaries unresolved, providing flashpoints for interstate conflict.

Continental shelves make for fantastic fishing, especially in maritime Southeast Asia, which is undergirded by the Sunda and Sahul shelves. The shallow waters of those shelves, which constitute about 20 percent of total shelf area worldwide, provide prime growing conditions for sea life: sunlight, shallow water and nutrient flows from several major river systems that empty into the sea. The environment has produced a startling diversity — over 3,000 species of fish live in the South China Sea alone — and a natural superabundance of catch. For the nations that line these waterways (every Southeast Asian state besides Laos), fishing has been critical to sustaining populations and, in the modern era, to government revenue and industrialization.

In the Asia-Pacific, fish are life. They are also territory, access to which is critical for other reasons: Control of waterways is key for nations to maintain vital trade flows, communication with far-flung regions and access to resources. And fishing breeds conflict that touches on these core interests. The fishing industry is inherently fragmented among countless subregions, and vessels travel through remote waters, making them difficult to regulate — even for governments with the will to do so. With so many attractive fisheries spread across so much territory, and so many littoral nations crammed so closely together, fishing boats can easily stray into foreign waters, either accidentally or in hopes of evading detection.

The situation has been compounded by the massive boom in fishing in the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War II, as the western Pacific industrialized its fisheries at a speed unprecedented elsewhere. By the 1990s, every maritime nation had been forced to develop its own fishing industry in a regional race to exploit their common resource. This has led to massive overfishing and a free fall in catch volumes across the region. And as nations have fished out the waters near their own shores, they have increasingly turned to distant-water fishing in the territories of their neighbors, with a particular focus on poorly patrolled regions. Disputed areas, such as those in the South China Sea, have become an especially attractive target, prompting countless unilateral fishing bans, massive pushes to police fishing and the high-profile destruction of transgressive vessels.

Some nations — including China — have even openly encouraged their fishermen to fish in disputed waters. In doing so, Beijing hopes to preclude the less advanced vessels of its neighbors, not to mention gather intelligence and map the region. Pushing its fishermen outward fulfills its goals for economic and political stability at home while establishing a presence in the waters that are vital to securing trade and strategic depth abroad. It is one small part of a much grander strategy, yet it constantly makes headlines as neighbors capture Chinese fishing vessels in their own waters.

Sharing Resources

But China has reached a strange juncture. It possesses the lion’s share of features in the South China Sea — an unparalleled position. Yet it also does not want to jeopardize its position with aggressive moves or incidents that push other claimants to exploit the court’s UNCLOS ruling to its fullest extent or prompt the United States and its allies to conduct a flurry of freedom of navigation patrols. Beijing is developing mechanisms to keep tension low and to address crises, promising to complete the South China Sea Code of Conduct by mid-2017, apply an ASEAN unplanned maritime encounters pact to the waterway and establish a maritime emergency hotline. Joint management of fisheries in disputed waters is another low-stakes option for keeping tension from escalating. It also happens to fit with China’s preference for bilateral solutions to conflicting South China Sea claims instead of an international agreement. And depending on how fisheries management plays out, it might also jibe with China’s strategy to create a rift among its South China Sea rivals.

In the case of the Scarborough Shoal dispute, the Philippines and China could establish a “joint zone” for fisheries management. The two sides would accept that there is no consensus on the ownership of the features and establish provisional policies for conduct and resource exploitation. This would have the added benefit of being in compliance with UNCLOS articles 74 and 83, which address such temporary arrangements.

There is a precedent for fishing cooperation between China and its neighbors. The prime example is China’s arrangement with Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The gulf forms the northwestern wing of the South China Sea, wedged between northern Vietnam and China’s southeastern Guangxi province and Hainan Island, which dominates the mouth of the gulf. The two countries’ agreement, signed in 2000 as part of a comprehensive maritime delimitation package over the Gulf of Tonkin, came after China and Vietnam re-established relations in 1991 following decades of acrimony, including a 1979 border war. As a shared body of water so close to critical regions and fishing communities, the Gulf of Tonkin was a core territorial issue to resolve — and one that led to numerous seizures of Chinese vessels by Vietnamese authorities for alleged incursions. Seven years of talks yielded a boundary near the midpoint of the gulf. It also set up a 33,500-square-kilometer (12,934-square-mile) overlapping fishing zone, about 30 nautical miles wide, that extended from the land border to the mouth of the gulf. The two governments are allowed to control and inspect their respective EEZs, exercise joint development, and oversee vessels in the shared zone. The area is managed by a joint committee.

But it is not a precise model for agreements elsewhere. In the Gulf of Tonkin, both sides were able to fully resolve their maritime boundary without ambiguity. (Although notably, they did not settle their outstanding disputes over the Paracel and Spratly island groups — the boundary ends at the mouth of the gulf.) Given China’s occupation of features in the Paracels and Spratlys, as well as at the Scarborough Shoal, and its interest in maintaining access to the South China Sea, delimiting those boundaries will not happen for a long time — if ever. That multiple nations lay claim to a large swath of the South China Sea makes joint fishing and exploration, let alone delimitation, an extremely complex issue.

The Gulf of Tonkin agreement, however, has succeeded in its primary objective: ending clashes in the gulf and, in particular, those over fishing vessels straying into undemarcated waters. The jointly managed zone allows Vietnam and China to maintain a buffer between each other with at least a pretense of shared management. Joint patrols began in 2006, and the joint committee meets a few times each year, though the shared zone is not closely monitored or controlled. The accord was also struck at a time when China was less ascendant and more likely to compromise with a neighbor. Any agreements reached now are likely to be tilted more in China’s favor.

A second joint fisheries management agreement involving China, this one in the Senkaku Islands, has been less successful, though it did manage to hold for a short period. It was particularly noteworthy for the country China signed it with: Beijing’s regional rival, Japan. The Senkaku Island group in the East China Sea northeast of Taiwan is controlled by Japan but claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands. Because of the mutually competing claims, there is no boundary demarcation between the two nations’ EEZs. In November 1997, China and Japan agreed to set aside their dispute to establish a provisional fishing zone that extended along their border in the East China Sea, including the area around the Senkaku Islands. The deal was an extension of the 1975 Fisheries Agreement that established conduct between Chinese and Japanese fishing vessels in the Yellow and East China seas and kept fishing vessels out of each other’s waters. The 1997 agreement essentially created a gap in which normal fishing activities between both sides could continue.

In this zone, both sides had jurisdiction over their own vessels but also a limited ability to monitor and regulate their counterpart’s vessels. Fishing disputes in the zone were managed by the joint committee or, failing that, direct negotiations. The cooperation agreement came into effect in 2000 and was meant to last for five years. It enshrined Japan and China’s exclusive rights to fishing in their own EEZs, established collective oversight through a joint fishery committee and provided guidelines for mutual access to the waters. Both sides were also meant to conduct joint patrols.

But the agreement is no longer functioning –- tensions between Japan and China rendered it largely ineffective. Its failure highlights the fragile nature of striking fishing agreements without first setting a delimitation. Even so, a nearly identical agreement signed by Japan and Taiwan in 2013 has held. (Taiwan claims the same maritime boundaries as mainland China.)

What Lies Ahead

A similarly targeted agreement between China and the Philippines would not need to take as long to hammer out as the Tonkin deal did, especially since it would have no pretense at permanence. Effective joint fishing cooperation, even in a limited agreement, would depend on several factors. Chief among them would be the mutual interest of both governments in reducing diplomatic tension. Here, another fisheries deal involving the Philippines and Taiwan provides an example. Although Manila and Taipei did not establish a jointly managed zone in the waters each claims, the two struck a deal in 2015 — with an eye to their mutual interests against Beijing — not to use force against each other’s fishing vessels in disputed waters. Their shared goal of counterbalancing China remains, as does the fishing agreement. But the lack of a comprehensive delimitation process around the targeted area would leave any agreement subject to the whims of geopolitics. For instance, after China and Japan reached their accord in the East China Sea, it lapsed when heightened tension ended their mutual interest in cooperation. Without boundary delimitation, any deal will be fragile and vulnerable to the vicissitudes of power politics. It is quite unlikely that Beijing and Manila will start the demarcation of Scarborough Shoal for a long time, and in fact it may never occur at all.

In practice, fisheries cooperation would be limited. The highly fluid nature of fishing and fishermen means that their movements will be difficult to govern. Both governments, moreover, have an interest in keeping catch volumes up. Consequently, even enduring cooperation will not cause the fisheries to rebound, even if such cooperation spreads elsewhere. That said, the one clear victory for an agreement would be that the short, sharp (and often unplanned) confrontations over fisheries could be contained enough that they do not provoke the broader crises that could plunge the South China Sea into deeper conflict.

Lead Analyst: Evan Rees


 (Contains links to several related articles)

Indonesia has these bigger fish to fry than South China Sea

August 6, 2016

Joko Widodo’s reshuffle comes amid loud noises on sovereignty, but is aimed more at economic issues than addressing tensions with China over fishing rights

By John McBeth
South China Morning Post

Saturday, August 6, 2016, 4:02 p.m.

cabinet reshuffle in Indonesia by President Joko Widodo that puts his former chief security minister and right-hand man Luhut Panjaitan in charge of maritime affairs is more about striking a political balance in the coalition government than adopting a harder line with China over disputed fishing rights in the South China Sea.

Widodo’s July 27 reshuffle, in which 13 of his 34 ministers were either replaced or moved sideways, came weeks after he held a cabinet meeting aboard a warship in waters off the Natuna Islands, following it with orders to expand offshore oil exploration and commercial fishing.

But the changes were mostly focused on improving his economic team as Indonesia struggles to close a widening budget deficit and get back to a five per cent-plus growth rate.

The president’s main motive in transferring Panjaitan to the maritime portfolio was to compensate one-time armed forces commander Wiranto for removing two ministers from his People’s Conscience Party, which has supported Widodo from the day he entered the presidential race in early 2014.

Unlike his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Widodo does not regard foreign relations as a high priority unless it helps in foreign investment or trade. A retired army general, Panjaitan has been key to shoring up Widodo’s political support since he came to power 18 months ago, which is why insiders say he was unhappy at his abrupt transfer to a less influential post.

 An Indonesian ship arrests a Chinese fishing boat off the Nanuta Islands. Photo: AFP

In recent months, he had also taken a leading role in diplomatic efforts to deal with the intrusion of Chinese fishing boats into Indonesia’s Economic Exclusion Zone, including one incident where a Chinese patrol boat entered Indonesian waters to seize back a captured fishing boat.

When Widodo held his shipboard cabinet session in late June, Panjaitan said it was a clear message Indonesia was “very serious in its efforts to protect its sovereignty”.

Widodo told the Brookings Institute last October: “We reject any attempt by any state to control and dominate the sea and turn it into an arena for strategy competition … we need to talk closely to ensure good order at sea, prevent incidents, and ensure freedom of navigation.”

Beijing recognises Indonesian sovereignty over the Natunas, but in a new shift it now claims the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone is part of “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”, a concept not recognised under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which it is a signatory.

While Indonesia is not a claimant to the Spratly Islands, which China argues ownership of against other regional powers, it has become alarmed at the number of incidents involving Chinese trawlers and Chinese coastguard corvettes which, until the Indonesian navy’s recent intervention, were able to intimidate lightly armed maritime patrol vessels.

Those problems came to the fore when Panjaitan led a delegation to Beijing for last April’s Fifth Bilateral Dialogue, a visit which clearly pleased Chinese officials who have worked to create divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), four of whose members are Spratly claimants.

Widodo has been reluctant to enter into a full-blown row with China because of its funding for vital infrastructure projects, pinning his hopes on Jakarta’s efforts to persuade China to sign off on a tension-lowering code of conduct for the South China Sea. Panjaitan, for his part, has been careful not to say anything inflammatory, tellingThis Week in Asia on his return from Beijing he was hopeful of an amicable solution. A month later, senior Chinese coastguard officers arrived to begin talks on a memorandum of understanding with their Indonesian counterparts.

The maritime coordinating ministry’s point man on sovereignty issues – an important component of Widodo’s much-trumpeted maritime policy – is veteran diplomat Havas Oegroseno, once a front runner for Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s position.

 Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti is known for her no-nonsense approach. Photo: Reuters

Asked at an August 2 forum about the rash of incidents in northern Indonesian waters, Oegroseno followed what has become the official party line. “It is not a dispute,” he insisted. “We’re just protecting our interests.”

Also under Panjaitan’s wing is popular fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who has put a serious dent in rampant poaching across the archipelago.

Although she accompanied Panjaitan to Beijing and gets along well with him, Pudjiastuti’s no-nonsense approach leaves little room for diplomatic niceties when it comes to saying what she thinks and scuttling trawlers caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Last week she made waves again when she said only Indonesians were allowed to fish in Indonesian waters.

A member of the Indonesian navy standing before the Chinese trawler Hua Li-8 in Belawan, North Sumatra, on April 23, 2016. Indonesia has accused China of illegal fishing in Indonesia’s EEZ.  PHOTO: AFP

Panjaitan will have other fish to fry as well. His new portfolio has oversight of the mines and energy ministry, currently grappling with issues ranging from the development of eastern Indonesia’s Masela gas field to a contract extension for US mining giant Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold in Papua.

With Panjaitan otherwise distracted and Wiranto more inclined to look inward than outward in his new role as political coordinating minister, the South China Sea will remain very much the domain of the foreign ministry.


 (Contains links to several related articles)


The Indonesian government has identified China as a major potential source of funds, and last year chose a Chinese consortium over a rival bid from Japan to fund and construct a high-speed railway line.


Taiwan’s South China Sea Claims in Difficult Waters

July 31, 2016

Trouble in Taiwan: Hague ruling on Taiping Island gives Tsai her biggest headache

Analysts say Taiwanese president has been stabbed in the back by US and Japan, two countries she had been relying on for support in row with Beijing

By Lawrence Chung
South China Morning Post


Call it bad luck. From the devastation caused by a powerful typhoon to an international ruling that torpedoed Taipei’s claim to an exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has faced a host of challenges in her first two months in office.

But the biggest challenge, analysts say, is the cross-strait tightrope she has been walking after apparently being stabbed in the back by the United States and Japan, two countries she had been counting on when dealing with pressure from the mainland.

Because of the US influence, Taiping Island thus becomes a rock and this is the biggest betrayal of Taiwan’s [interest]

And that tightrope act could get even trickier, they say, if she presses ahead with an evasive cross-strait policy, because Beijing is unlikely to abandon its demand that she accept the “one-China” principle.

Since Tsai assumed office on May 20, catastrophes including the flooding of the island’s main international airport, a massive strike by flight attendants, the accidental misfiring of an anti-ship missile that killed a fisherman, a pipe bomb explosion that wounded 25 people on a commuter train and a bus fire that left 24 mainland tourists dead have followed one after the other.

Analysts said her biggest challenge so far stemmed from the July 12 tribunal ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that no land features – including Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island – in the contested Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea could be considered islands.

That ruling caught the Tsai government off guard because Taipei was never officially consulted throughout the arbitration process, which was initiated by the Philippines against Beijing over territorial and other disputes in the South China Sea. However, the court did accept written evidence from the non-government Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law about Taiping Island’s status.

 Taiping Island (太平島) — also known as Itu Aba Island

Analysts said the US was behind the case, because it wanted to check Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea, but it had indirectly dragged Taiwan into troubled waters.

“Because of the US influence, Taiping Island thus becomes a rock and this is the biggest betrayal of Taiwan’s [interest],” said political commentator Wang Hsing-ching, who writes under the pseudonym Nanfang Shuo.

The downgrading of Taiping’s status means that under the International Convention on the Law of Sea, Taiwan can only assert claims to territorial waters extending just 12 nautical miles from it, not an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles.

The Tsai government has responded by flatly rejecting the ruling. In addition to issuing statements asserting its rights and sovereignty, it also moved forward by one day a regular navy patrol mission to the South China Sea to uphold Taiwan’s rights over the Spratlys.

But critics of Tsai’s US policy accused her of humiliating Taipei by kowtowing to Washington through her government’s silence when the US and Japan called on Taiwan and other claimants to follow international law and avoid escalating tensions in the region.

“No one opposes a friendly Taiwan-US relationship,” said Julian Kuo, a former legislator of Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. “But if such a befriending is to the extent of humiliating ourselves … and even to the denial of our rights to the exclusive economic zone of Taiping Island, the Taiwanese public obviously will not agree to such a no-limit pro-US policy.”

Wang said the Tsai government should not become so timid that it allowed the US or Japan to take advantage of Taiwan in the hope they could be used to counter the mainland.

Analysts said Beijing was well aware of Tsai’s strategy of seeking to unite Washington and Tokyo in order to counter pressure from the mainland over her reluctance to recognise the “1992 consensus” – an oral agreement reached by non-governmental intermediaries at talks in Hong Kong in 1992 to the effect that both sides of the strait agree there is only one China but that each has its own interpretation of what one China is.

“It is unlikely that Tsai will openly accept the [1992] consensus, at least in her first four-year term in the face of the majority opinion that opts for the status quo,” said Wang Kung-yi, an international relations and strategic studies professor at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.

Beijing has stopped official communication with Taipei due to Tsai’s refusal to recognise the consensus, which it says is the political foundation for the two sides to continue talks and exchanges.

“But it is also unlikely for Beijing to wait indefinitely, as it expects her to finish the test paper the mainland has deemed incomplete,” Wang said.

In her inaugural speech, Tsai acknowledged there was a meeting in 1992 at which the two sides tried to seek common ground over differences. She also offered to maintain the status quo in line with the constitution of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official title – a commitment some analysts said was quite close to the one-China concept of the consensus.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Tsai said she looked forward to mainland President Xi Jinping showing “a bit more flexibility in dealing with cross-strait relations”, suggesting that she hoped Beijing could understand the situation she faced in a democratic society that could not ignore public opinion.

Liu Guozhen, director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, said the two sides had yet to find common ground on the consensus.

“Beijing hopes the DPP government can directly accept the concept of the 1992 consensus, but it also understands the difficulty Tsai is facing,” Liu said, adding the term “1992 consensus” could be replaced by any terminology as long as it contained the one-China core meaning.

South China Sea: Taiwan Rejects Hague Court Ruling — Lawmakers and fishermen head to South China Sea’s Taiping Island to declare sovereignty and fishing rights

July 20, 2016

Moves come after an international tribunal in the Hague rejected Taipei’s right to an exclusive economic zone around Taiping on July 12

By Minnie Chan
South China Morning Post

Wednesday, July 20, 2016, 12:46pm
 A group of fishermen set sail in a flotilla to Taiping Island in South China Sea on Wednesday to declare Taiwan’s fishing rights to the area. Photo: CNA Pictures

Twenty Taiwanese lawmakers and fishermen departed for Taiping Island in the South China Sea on Wednesday to declare Taiwan’s sovereignty and fishing rights in the area.

The moves come after an international tribunal in the Hague on July 12 rejected Taipei’s right to an exclusive economic zone around Taiping.

 Taiping Island. Photo: Kyodo

Eight lawmakers from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party and opposition Kuomintang (KMT) flew from Pingtung county to Taiping Island to declare Taipei’s sovereignty over the island.

Twelve fishermen set off in a five-boat flotilla at noon on Wednesday from southern Pingtung to Taiping to uphold what they say are Taiwan’s fishing rights to the waters.

The delegation of politicians, led by KMT lawmaker Chiang Chi-chen, boarded a military aircraft from

Pingtung at 7.20am and was expected to land on the island at 10.50 am, the official China News Agency said.

Chiang criticised Taiwan’s government for not taking substantial action to defend the island’s sovereignty in the region.

During the visit the lawmakers would visit the military facilities on the island, as well as its weather station and solar power and satellite equipment, before returning to Pingtung at 1.10 pm, the agency said.

Ten fishing boats from Pingtung had originally planned to take part in the action, but five of them dropped out after receiving warnings from fishery authorities, organisers said.

Cheng Chun-chung, the fishing boat owner who initiated the action, said he had been told by a fisheries official in Taiwan that he would have his boat licence revoked if he sailed to the island, because his vessel was permitted to sail only between Taiwan, the mainland and Hong Kong.

However, Cheng said he would not back down – even at the risk of having his licence revoked. Organisers received a box of clothes and hats bearing the Republic of China flag design from a supporter in Taichung, who urged the fishermen to wear them.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled on July 12 that all high-tide features in the South China Sea, including Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Chinese, were rocks rather than islands and therefore were not entitled to 200-nautical-mile economic zones under international law.

An island is entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, while “rocks” are permitted to have only a 12-nautical-mile zone.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration were not a party to the tribunal case, called the ruling unacceptable and said it was not binding on Taiwan.


 (Includes links to articles posted since the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration)

Fishing Disputes Could Spark a South China Sea Crisis

April 7, 2016

Philippines Thanks U.S. Senators For Their Support on South China Sea

July 19, 2015


Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, walks with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Associated Press)

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MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang on Sunday showed gratefulness with the support exhibited by American senators who acknowledged the country’s efforts to resolve the maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

“Ikinagagalak po natin na lumalawak lalo ang hanay ng mga sumusuporta sa posisyon ng ating bansa,” said Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. in a radio interview with dzRB Radyo ng Bayan.

Coloma mentioned that United States senators John McCain, Jack Reed, Bob Corker and Ben Cardin are now among those who supports the Philippines in its peaceful pursuit to resolve the maritime disputes.

The four US senators in a statement said they are supporting the Philippines’ decision to file a case before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea concerning China’s expansive claim to disputed maritime territories.

In the statement released by the four  US senators, they clarified that even if the United States does not take a position on the competing claims, they commended President Benigno Aquino III in his commitment to attempt legal course of action for the territorial claims.

“While China is constructing and militarizing new land features in the South China Sea and increasingly turning to coercion to achieve its goals, we are encouraged to see that Manila continues to make every effort to resolve these claims peacefully, consistent with international law, and through international arbitration mechanisms,” the statement read.

“Sa ganyan pong pagpapahayag nina Senator McCain at Senators Jack Reed at Bob Corker at Senator Ben Cardin, dumarami po lalo ang hanay ng mga sumusuporta sa ating itinataguyod na mapayapang pagresolba ng mga usapin sa West Philippine Sea o South China Sea,” Coloma said.

The US senators also expressed support in “bolstering the maritime capabilities of South East Asian nations and conducting joint exercises and patrols.”

“It is also critical that the United States take the necessary steps to sustain a balance of power that will continue to uphold peace and stability throughout the region. Given the pace and scope of China’s military trajectory, we believe this will demand a sustained investment in our military presence in the Asia-Pacific region,” the US senators added.

Aside from the four Senators the European Union, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan and Australia have shown their support for Philippines’ efforts to peacefully resolve the maritime disputes through international law.


Arbitration in the South China Sea

A courtroom in The Hague has become an important new battleground in the multinational struggle over the resource-rich South China Sea. Based on a case brought by the Philippines against China, which claims it has rights over 90 percent of that body of water, the proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration are an attempt to resolve peacefully a dispute that had been playing out in increasingly dangerous confrontations on the high seas.

Earlier this year, satellite photos provided stark evidence of China’s determination to establish a sphere of influence over that sea, a strategically important waterway for billions in annual trade that is also thought to be rich in oil and gas. Since January, the photos showed, China has accelerated its strategy of turning tiny coral specks into substantial artificial islands — including at least one with an airstrip — in an effort to assert its jurisdiction.

During arguments last week at the court, the Philippines said China had violated the rights of individual countries and asked the five-judge tribunal to declare China’s claims invalid. China has responded to the overlapping counterclaims by neighboring states, which include Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia, by confronting their fishing boats on the open water. For a time, Beijing even parked an oil drilling rig off Vietnam’s coast.

For the Philippines, this case is about maritime rights, including the right to fish and develop potentially lucrative oil and gas deposits within a 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone” off its coast as defined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under the convention, habitable islands can qualify to have 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, while rocks or shoals entitle countries to no more than 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. In addition to expelling Filipino fishermen from a disputed shoal, China has prevented the Philippines from carrying out oil and gas explorations in some areas that Manila considers its territorial waters.

China insists the tribunal has no jurisdiction, an issue the arbitrators will first have to address. A decision is expected in about 90 days. If awarded jurisdiction, the tribunal will then examine the substantive merits of China’s sweeping claims to most of the South China Sea.

Previous efforts to resolve the contested claims diplomatically, either through bilateral discussions between China and the various claimants or in a regional process, failed. That is because the status quo suits China just fine, allowing it considerable freedom to expand its control.

It is not surprising that the Philippines would look for other ways to protect its interests. Pursuing its claims through the court is far wiser than confronting China on the high seas and deserves the support of the United States and countries in that region. If the Philippines loses the case, it could lose exclusive rights to most of its traditional fishing ground and mineral resources that lie there. If the case goes against China, its leaders may well ignore it. But they should participate in the tribunal process if China wants to be recognized as a leader in a world that values the resolution of disputes within a legal framework.


Most Noted South China Sea “Incidents” With China

June 6, 2015

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Quang Le

A Vietnamese sailor stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago January 17, 2013.   Credit: Reuters/Quang Le


By Chris Zappone
Sydney Morning Herald
News editor, foreign desk

China’s island building has brought the South China Sea back to the world’s attention. Brunei, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan all have claims to the sea. But tensions between the nations are hardly new in a region that suffers from an unenviable blend of sketchy governance, conflicting history and local rivalries.

Throw into the mix the economic value of fishing rights and undersea oil and gas, and it’s not entirely surprising China has claimed the whole of the sea with its so-called Nine Dash Line (see map), a move the rest of the countries are contesting.

If that’s not complicated enough, the South China Sea has been a key area of the US’s Navy’s 7th fleet operation since the 1940s when the fleet was first formed (in Australia, for the record).

So with these complications in mind, here is a look at the most notable dust-ups in the South China Sea in recent years.

Chinese oil rig HD-981 – May 2014

China dragged an oil rig into the waters of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, sparking an international incident. Vietnam’s foreign ministry immediately protested against the action. Within days, Vietnamese and Chinese ships sailed around the exploratory rig HD-981 and began ramming each other. A week later, violent anti-China protests erupted in Vietnam, leaving two Chinese citizens dead and factories, which later turned out to be mostly Taiwanese-owned, damaged. By mid-May China evacuated its citizens. In mid-July China removed the rig, saying its drilling activities were complete.

China’s Coast Guard keeps a sharp eye on HD-981, the oil rig at left

In May of 2014, China placed its largest relocatable oil rig, its first deepwater rig, number 981, near Vietnam. In a months-long stand-ff that followed, more than 15 Vietnamese were killed in encounters with Chinese vessels. Vietnam said at the time that the oil rig was inside Vietnam’s EEZ, a violation of international law. In this photo, the Chinese Coast Guard keeps watch over China’s oil rig. China rammed several Vietnamese government vessels and privately owned Vietnamese fishing boats.


US Navy ship, the USS Cowpens is harassed – December 2013

A Chinese navy ship blocked US Navy guided missile cruiser the USS Cowpens in international waters, forcing it to take action to avoid a collision. The incident was ultimately resolved through ship-to-ship communication, although the intention of such a risky move remained unclear. “I don’t know the intent of the guy driving that PLA [People’s Liberation Army] ship,” a US Navy official complained. “I just know that he was moving to impede and harass the Cowpens.” The US lodged a complaint with Chinese officials.

USS Cowpens

“Scarborough Shoal is ours!” – April 2012

The Philippines protested against China’s arrival on, and occupation of, Scarborough Shoal. After a tense stand-off, both sides agreed to de-escalate the situation, but only the Philippines withdrew its ship. Cyber patriots from the Philippines defaced a Chinese website leaving the message: “Chinese government is clearly retarded. Scarborough Shoal is ours!”  The Philippines, once a US colony and host to the US military during the Vietnam War, launched a campaign to challenge China in the international court, angering China.

Chinese ships converge on, try to block US Navy ship, the USNS Impeccable – March 2009  

In 2009, Chinese ships and planes repeatedly harassed the U.S. ocean surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable (seen here) in the South China Sea.

In 2009, a group of Chinese ships, some naval and some civilian, came within about 15 metres of a non-commissioned US Navy surveillance ship in international waters in the South China Sea. Chinese crew members waved flags and demanded the US ship leave. They also tried to catch the ship’s underwater listening equipment. At one moment the path of the ship was blocked. The next day, Chinese aircraft repeatedly buzzed the ship at an altitude of about 600 feet.

EP3 Hainan plane downing – April 2001

A Chinese F-8 fighter collided with a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was trying to execute “a close pass in an apparent attempt to impress or intimidate the EP-3 crew [and] made a fatal error in judgment”. The collision resulted in the crash of the Chinese jet and the forced landing of the US plane on Hainan Island. Two dozen US crew members were held for 11 days as China and US debated who was at fault.

United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II incident with China 2001 — note the damage to the nose of the aircraft. The Chinese pilot was killed.

Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal – 1994 to today

China built structures to protect fishermen on Mischief Reef in 1994-1995, sparking a furious response from the Philippines. In 1999, China built more on the island, spurring more protests. As a result, the Philippines deliberately runs a World War II-era landing craft on Second Thomas Shoal, using it as an outpost for a garrison of sailors to keep watch. With Chinese ships in the area, the Philippines has to get creative to keep the sailors resupplied, avoiding Chinese ships and, more recently, air-dropping supplies.

The Philippines tries to resupply a Philippine Marine platoon posted at Ayungin Shoal onboard BRP Sierra Madre on March 29, 2014. The larger ship in this image is a Chinese ship trying to interfere with the smaller Filipino re-supply boat.

BRP Sierra Madre

China and Vietnam fight over Spratlys in 1988

Nearly a decade after Vietnam and China went to war with each other, China and Vietnam engaged in naval battle over the Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys.

Vietnam lost more than 70 sailors and three ships in the action. Both countries gave conflicting accounts of how the conflict, in which China prevailed, came to pass. The battle underscores an important point about tussling over islets and reefs in the sea: it’s extremely difficult to know for certain what is happening on these remote outcroppings. The uncertainty often worsens the dispute.

The Battle of the Paracel Islands in January 1974

This dust-up preceded what became, well, war between Vietnam and China. In 1974 South Vietnamese ships discovered Chinese troops on the Crescent Group in the western Paracel Islands. Both sides sent more ships. Within days, South Vietnamese and Chinese ships and troops exchanged fire. With the US Navy winding down its support of South Vietnam, the nation found itself outgunned. The Vietnamese lost more than 50 troops, while China is thought to have lost about 15 sailors. In 1979, China would cross Vietnam’s border during the month-long Sino-Vietnamese War.

An armed Chinese fighter jet conducted


South China Sea.

Many South China Sea island people fear a new wave of swarming Chinese fishermen

Chinese fishing boats make ready for the fishing season. Vietnam and the Philippines have been reporting harassment and hostile acts from Chinese fishermen in traditional Vietnamese and Filipino fishing grounds.
These are Chinese fishing boats doing what the Vietnamese call “swarming”
Chinese fishing boats “swarming”

Vietnamese fishing boat Dna 90152 sinking May 2014 after being rammed intentionally by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. Vietnam and the Philippines have reported numerous acts of violence against them at the hands of Chinese nationals during 2013- 2015


Vietnamese fishermen inspect one of their vessels after it was rammed by a Chinese ship

Screenshot of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel ramming a Vietnamese vessel in May 2014

Nguyen Chi Thanh, the owner and captain of fishing boat QNg96093, is seen on his vessel after it was attacked by Chinese forces on January 7, 2015.
Tuoi Tre

A fisherman shows a hole in the cabin window of a Vietnamese fishing boat after it was attacked by gunmen. The fishermen said one man was killed and one fishing boat “disappeared.” Photo: Dinh Tuyen


Why Specks of Land in the South China Sea Are Fueling Tensions Between Beijing and Its Neighbors

December 12, 2014

New book reveals that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea are a recent invention.

Simon Worrall
for National Geographic

A photo of a Vietnamese Coast Guard looking at a Chinese Coast Guard ship

An officer looks on as his Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel is flanked in May 2014 by a Chinese Coast Guard ship in disputed waters west of the Paracel islands. Vietnam sought support from neighboring nations to force China to withdraw an oil rig it had set up in waters claimed by both nations. Photograph by Oanh Ha, Bloomberg via Getty Images

They have names like Pigeon Reef, West Sand, Taisho-To, and Scarborough Shoal. Most are no more than outcrops of rock poking out of the sea. Most have never been inhabited. Few have any direct economic value. If not for the perceived fish and oil wealth in the waters around them, the spat over these specks in the South China Sea would read like the bizarre disputes between Lilliput and Blefuscu in Gulliver’s Travels.

But for Beijing, the battle for these remote islands is part of a wider geopolitical aim: control over the entire South China Sea and its potential resource wealth. Tensions are rising. In August a Chinese Navy fighter plane buzzed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, narrowly missing it. Two months earlier, an armed Chinese vessel chased and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. China is also at loggerheads with Japan and the Philippines, which the U.S. is obligated under treaty to defend.

Speaking from his home in London, Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, explains how China is a victim of its own propaganda, why the South China Sea is also crucial to American interests, and how “peace parks” could save collapsing fish stocks and defuse military tensions.

The Nanhai, as the South China Sea is known, has always had a deep meaning to the Chinese. Explain its significance.

Its meaning has been projected backwards. One of the things I learned researching the book was how the southern part of China related to Southeast Asia in a way that other parts of China didn’t.

For a long time it was seen as a frontier place, from which only bad things came. For the first few thousand years of the South China Sea trade, it was Malays and Indians and Arabs who did most of the trading. It was only relatively late, roughly after the tenth century, that the Chinese got in on the act.

But it was always seen with ambivalence by the imperial court. The idea that the South China Sea belongs to China only emerges as a nationalist idea in the 20th century and has been projected backwards in history.

You write about the Arab dhow found off Belitung Island in Indonesia, which National Geographic covered in 2009. How did it change our understanding of historical trade along the Maritime Silk Route?

It shows how specialized and sophisticated the trade between China and the Middle East already was by then. You have pottery with Islamic motifs being custom made for markets separated by thousands of miles of dangerous sea. It’s not just the province of explorers. This is a maritime trade. And we can tell from the different products and where they were distributed in the boat that this ship must have visited several ports, picking up different cargoes along the way. So we get a sense of how these places were connected in a thriving trade more than a thousand years ago.

A photo of a Vietnam Marine Guard ship and a Chinese Coast Guard ship in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese and Chinese ships shadow each other in the South China Sea off Vietnam, where China had installed a deepwater drilling rig that Vietnam condemned as illegal. Photograph by Nguyen Minh, Reuters/Corbis

The focus of your book is the disputes over a number of islands, many of them barely more than outcrops of rock. Give us a brief tour of the hot spots.

There are three main areas. There are the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam. China now occupies all of them. Then there are the Spratly Islands in the south, which are disputed between China and Vietnam, but also Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and to a degree Indonesia. The third layer is the Scarborough Shoal, which is disputed between China and the Philippines.

The problem is that no one is actually willing to clarify their claims and say, We were the first ones to stick our flag on this island—because they don’t have the evidence. The first time a Chinese official set foot on the Paracel Islands was probably June 6, 1909, the first time on the Spratly Islands was December 12, 1946. The Vietnamese probably stuck their flag in the Spratly Islands as an independent country in 1956, although the French had been there before them. The Philippines came much later, in the 1970s. (Learn more about a local Vietnamese ethnic group known as the Cham, whose members remain wary of taking sides in the South China Sea dispute.)

But it’s not so much the islands that are valuable. It’s the spaces in between them. That’s where the fish and possible oil reserves might lie. So there’s no incentive for the countries to try to limit their claims. They’re at the stage where they want to make their claims as expansive as possible.

Deng Xiaoping famously said that the islands of the South China Sea “have belonged to China since ancient times.” Is there any merit to that claim?

As late as the 1890s Chinese officials in Guangdong Province were denying responsibility for the islands. There was a case in 1898 where two British ships got wrecked on the Paracel Islands, and pirates looted the wreck. The British complained. But the governor of Guangdong Province denied all knowledge of the islands. Maps of that period don’t mention the islands either.

Everything changes in 1909, when a Japanese merchant is discovered digging up guano on Pratas Island, between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Because of the negative feeling toward foreign exploitation in China in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, this provoked a huge nationalist backlash, leading to boycotts of Japanese products and the decision to make the Japanese merchants leave.

And it’s only in 1909 that the Chinese authorities start taking an interest in the South China Sea. If one looks at the names of the islands in Chinese, it’s clear many of them are simply translations of the British names. So, for example, Jinyin Dao in the Paracels is the Chinese for “Money Island.” The word “Money” actually comes from William Taylor Money, chief superintendent to the Bombay Marine, the navy of the English East India Company.

China has recently embarked on a major underwater archaeology program aimed at identifying the 2,000 or so shipwrecks off its coasts. How is maritime history being exploited to bolster territorial claims?

The director of the Underwater Archaeological Research Centre has been pretty open that what he’s doing is intended primarily to bolster China’s claims to the islands. This is not disinterested scholarship. He sees his purpose as a nationalistic one. So there’s an unfortunate but mutually beneficial arrangement between the government, which wants to bolster its claims to islands, and the archaeologists, who are looking to increase their ability to do underwater excavations. But if the archaeology becomes subject to a political agenda, then the scholarship won’t be reliable.

Tell us about the Selden Map—and how cartography has shaped the present conflicts.

The Selden Map is fascinating because its history tells us an awful lot about the links between Southeast Asia and Europe at the time. It’s a Chinese-made map, although where it was actually made is still not settled. It was called the Selden Map because it was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford by John Selden, who was also one of the founders of international maritime law.

Quite how it came into his possession is not yet known. Selden was connected to the English East India Tea Company, and he may well have known the person who stole the map—we assume it was stolen or raided from the Chinese owners. The map itself is richly decorated in the Chinese style, with images of landscapes and trees and plants. But what’s also clear is that it contains navigational instructions.

Is this the origin of the so-called U-shaped line?

The U-shaped line, or Nine-Dotted Line, as it is also known, emerges much later, out of the nationalist anxiety of the early 20th century, when the old empire is overthrown by the modern Chinese republic. Up to then, China’s borders had never been clearly delineated.

Then in the early decades of the 20th century, Chinese cartographers attempted to show where the rightful boundaries of China should lie, which were, incidentally, well beyond its current boundaries. You can see this in a whole series of maps produced by the Shanghai Cartographic Society. And this is the origin of the U-shaped line.

You say that the battle for these islands represents “psychology and perception trumping any practical benefits.” Can you expand on that?

The islands themselves are not worth exploiting. Once upon a time merchants mined guano as agricultural fertilizer. But those deposits have long since gone. What is at stake is the fisheries and perceived oil wealth. There are some oil prospects in part of the disputed areas. But the idea that this is some vast new Saudi Arabia waiting to be tapped is not borne out by the evidence.

So it’s all about nationalism?

China has convinced itself that it’s the rightful owner of the South China Sea and that anybody else’s claim is invented, and secondary. From that basic belief, we get a whole series of actions, which have alarmed the region. Like installing oil rigs off the coast of Vietnam. These actions are all predicated on the idea that the South China Sea belongs to China.

What I try to show in the book is how this sentiment only emerged in the first part of the 20th century. Nonetheless, it’s clear that it’s deeply held. Chinese school textbooks tell children that China has three million square nautical miles of maritime territory. The official map of the country has also been changed to show the U-shaped line in its entirety. Basically, the Chinese government is believing its own propaganda.

The U.S. has recently beefed up its presence in the South China Sea, and there have been repeated near collisions with Chinese fighter planes. How close are we to a regional war?

I think we’re a long way away from that. But it’s clear the Chinese don’t want the Americans as close to their coast as they are. The American position is that the Law of the Sea gives them a perfect right to sail up to within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese coast and do whatever they like. That includes listening to submarines or flying surveillance missions along the coast. The Chinese are trying to stop this, which is why we’ve had confrontations in the air as recently as August.

The South China Sea is vital to the U.S. as a military power and also in terms of commercial shipping. It’s vital that the seaways are open for energy shipments and all the products of world trade that go backwards and forwards. The U.S. Navy can’t just abandon them and trust that the Chinese are going to look after them. And this is where America’s desire to be a world power bumps up against China’s desire to be a regional power and control what it sees as its maritime backyard.

You end the book with an alternative vision of mutual cooperation in the South China Sea. Imagine it for us.

If the islands weren’t there, everybody could agree to draw up zones where, according to the Law of the Sea, they were beneficiaries of the oil and fishing rights. The Philippines could get access to much needed energy sources. And the different countries could talk about managing fish stocks. Fish stocks face a potential catastrophic decline from overfishing. But since no country is willing to recognize the other countries’ authority to regulate fishing, there’s no overall body taking control.

John McManus, who works for the American Coral Reef Center, has suggested the idea of a peace park, which could both demilitarize the area and be a place where fish stocks could recover. But it’s not getting anywhere, because that would mean everybody would have to take a step back from their nationalist positions.


China claims to own all the South China Sea inside the “nine dash line” as seen here.

China claims ownership of about 90% of the South China Sea. Most of China’s neighbors believe otherwise.

The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law. Experts say, this could be the geographic area that China could declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ).