Starting January 1 police in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan will board ships which enter what China considers its territory in the South China Sea, Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato of Reuters report.
“Activities such as entering the island province’s waters without permission … and engaging in publicity that threatens national security are illegal,” the China Daily said. “If foreign ships or crew members violate regulations, Hainan police have the right to take over the ships or their communication systems.”
The aggressive move raises the stakes in Asia’s biggest trouble spot, which includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes through which more than half the globe’s oil tanker traffic passes.
“That cannot be,” Marine Lt.-Gen. Juancho Sabban, commander of Filipino military forces in the contested area, told Reuters. “That’s a violation of the international passage (rights).”
Several Asian countries claim sovereignty over small islands in the area that are significant as strategic territorial waters and potentially exclusive economic zones rich in natural resources and fish.
Dr. Ely Ratner, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told BI that the move is the latest manifestation of China using diplomatic, economic or military coercion to advance territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
However, what’s new here is that in other conflicts – such as the Scarborough Shoal, Sansha City or the Senkaku islands – China has said it is reacting to provocations from other nations, whereas in this case there is no claim that it is a reaction.
“It’s unquestionably escalatory and destabilizing,” Ratner said. “This is a unilateral action by China, and is the type of [proactive maneuver] that people have been worrying a lot about and keeping an eye out for.”
Ratner said “there’s no doubt that in the medium term the diplomatic pushback both within the regional and [from] outside powers is going to be pretty strong” given the fact that the world economy is largely dependent on freedom of navigation and freedom of passage through the South China Sea.
The U.S. – which has repeatedly emphasized that it has a national interest in free navigation in the region – has shifted military resources back to Asia.
What makes China’s decree difficult to counter is that Beijing is using non-military and law enforcement agencies (which makes it appear less threatening than if they used naval ships) and have not expressed an interest in developing a code of conduct that would provide nations with a protocol for how to behave around disputed waters or even an interest in discussing what islands are disputed.
But that doesn’t mean China will get away with it in the long run.
“This is not a long-term winning strategy for the Chinese,” Ratner said. “Every time they do something like this, what we see is both enhanced cooperation among the regional states – and we’re starting to see some of that already – and increased demand for U.S. presence and diplomatic participation in the region.”
The enhanced U.S. attention has emboldened countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam to take a tougher stance against Beijing. Ratner said that the regional nations and the U.S. can speak with one voice on these issues, “they can provide a diplomatic counterweight to some of these activities.”
Ratner noted that the U.S. will likely continue to place these types of incidents in the broader perspective of U.S.-China relations to communicate the seriousness of the stakes.
“It’s really a questions of how far China is willing to go—they pass laws like [this] but are they actually willing to get out on the high seas and start arresting fisherman or whomever thinks they are in international waters or disputed territory where they have been fishing or doing their business for centuries?” Ratner said. “China is the elephant in the room here and they are the ones that will ultimately decide if this gets resolved peacefully or not.”