Many individuals are unaware of an ongoing dispute regarding national territorial integrity being played out in the South China Sea. Sure, some of you have seen the news of a Chinese Navy crew and a US Navy P8-A Poseidon aircraft on May 20, 2015, nine days ago. Some of you may have heard the radio exchanges between the two navies but I believe most you have not realized that what is happening in the South China Sea is history in the making. Not only do we get to sit back and see history in the making because of our newfound love for instant news cycles driven by social media but we are also witnessing a fundamental change to international laws on territorial integrity.
The issues at play are far too complex to develop over one blog post but nonetheless I am going to attempt to share with you my thoughts about how history is being made today through some broad stroke explanations of what is going on.
What is happening right now is something that has played out historically from the time we started building nations across the globe. Christopher Columbus, as US citizens know him, and Cristobal Colon as Latin America knows him was his generation’s version of what is going on today in the South China Sea.
When Colon landed in the New World, he planted the Spanish flag on it and proclaimed it Spain’s new territory. Over simplified, he expanded the Spanish Empire into the Americas by his planting of the Spanish flag. From there developed the countries of the United States, México and the rest of North and South America.
The “planting of the flag” has historically cemented a nation’s national integrity. Of course, wars, nation building and governmental changes redraw the world’s maps on a regular basis.
National territorial integrity not only designates a culture, language and government but it also divides the world’s resources into chunks that countries use for their benefit, presumably for the benefit of their citizens but more often than not for the benefit of certain individuals in that country.
Regardless, the resources are what most countries are most willing to fight other countries for, except for the occasional ideological interlopers like ISIS. It is the resources that expanded territorial integrity from land into a nation’s surrounding waters. These waters are called littoral waters or the littoral zone. For the purposes of this blog, I am focusing specifically to the military definition of littoral instead of the scientific use of the word.
As with everything, the legalities of littoral waters gets complex and even more so when different nations are involved. Historically, nations have agreed that the first three nautical miles from a country’s coast is part of their territory. Natural resources like oil and fishing created the need for a broader definition for the littoral zone, as countries jockeyed for a greater share of the resources.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes a country’s littoral waters as being 12 nautical miles from the nation’s land mass. Because natural resources are fundamental to each country the need to extend control over more of the earth resulted in the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones where a county reserves the right to exploit natural resources up to 200 nautical miles from their coast.
For security purposes, nations have agreed to create Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) that can be up to 200 nautical miles from the country’s borders. The ADIZ does not limit air transit through them but it allows a country to demand the identity of an aircraft in that zone. It is important to note that the ADIZ does not allow for the automatic shooting down of an aircraft in the ADIZ; however, an aircraft may be intercepted and identified.
In the Exclusive Economic Zones, countries may limit exploitation of natural resources such as fishing and oil exploration but, for the most part, they must allow transit through the areas. As you can see, the territorial zones are determined by the shape of a country’s land as they extend based on the land mass. When a country has an island off its coast, the exclusion zone as well as the littoral zone expands the country’s reach.
There are instances where the zones, especially the economic zones, clash with adjacent countries and there are mechanisms to address them on a case-by-case basis.
It is important to note that China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while the United States is not. Although the United States agrees with most provisions of the agreement it has not ratified the convention because it objects to Part XI that governs how minerals outside of the economic zones are to be regulated. In principal, the United States agrees with the 12 nautical mile territorial area and 200 nautical mile exclusion zone.
Because territorial land is the determining factor, China has been creating artificial landmasses thus increasing its territorial reach into the South China Sea. Of course, oil is at the center of the territorial dispute between Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, other countries in the area, and of course China. Since the 1970’s, China has been expanding its control over this area.
A national territory is defined as that territory that a government has the ability to keep under its control. Because the United States has determined that its national security lies on its ability to project military forces to other countries it has developed the world’s most sophisticated navy. That navy requires the ability to operate on any ocean unimpeded and as such, it has routinely challenged other countries when they take actions that may impede the US Navy’s ability to operate unimpeded in any of the world’s oceans.
Challenges come in many forms. In this case, China is attempting to assert effective control over a larger area of the South China Sea by transforming reefs into an islands, in effect planting its flag on artificial islands, they create.
There are many international legal issues and the interests of many countries about China’s actions but for the purposes of this blog let us limit ourselves to the narrow issue of territorial integrity and why creating an artificial island is historical in nature.
On May 20, 2015, the United States Navy declassified and published a video and recording of a US Navy P8-A Poseidon challenging China’s expansion of its national territory through an artificial island. There are, of course, many complex geopolitical issues involved that for brevity sake I must gloss over but I believe the broad strokes I am sharing with you should give you a clearer understanding of the history being made.
At its most basic, what the video and radio conversations show is China trying to assert control over the expanded territory while the United States challenges them about the expansion. Normally, you would not be witnessing these events, as they are classified or too complex for 30-second sound bites.
The US Navy video gives us an unprecedented look into the gamesmanship involved in national integrity between nations and how each nation tries to control more of the world’s resources.
Historically, by the time most individuals find out about the issue, either war has broken out, an aircraft has been forced down or a country has taken control of a larger area of the world. The South China Sea issue has been going on for a long time and it is highly unlikely it will be resolved any time soon.
However, now that United States has decided to allow us an opportunity to partake of the events by declassifying the video and audio, and hopefully declassify many more, it is likely other countries with interests in this issue, including China, may follow suit allowing is deeper look into history in the making.
I hope that by reading this blog, you have a better understanding of the issues involved and you can better appreciate the video of the May 20, 2015 incident between the Chinese and US navies.