On Monday we reported that in a remarkable escalation of the fragile geopolitical status quo, Chinese authorities would require a range of vessels "to report their information" when passing through what China sees as its “territorial waters”, starting from September 1. The rule is supposed to apply to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the various islands and reefs dotted across the water that Beijing claims as its inalienable territory. The Communist Party-run Global Times reported that “such a rollout of maritime regulations are a sign of stepped-up efforts to safeguard China’s national security at sea by implementing strict rules to boost maritime identification capability" and its coming just days after the botched evacuation of Afghanistan by the BIden administration is hardly a coincidence.
It didn't take long for the US - which this Chinese proclamation was squarely aimed at - to respond and on Wednesday, the Pentagon blasted Beijing’s new demand that all foreign ships entering the South China Sea must register with Chinese maritime authorities, calling it a “serious threat” to freedom of navigation and trade.
“The United States remains firm that any coastal state law or regulation must not infringe upon navigation and overflight rights enjoyed by all nations under international law,” said John Supple, a Pentagon spokesman, in response to questions about China’s decree this week.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims, including in the South China Sea, pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rights and interests of South China Sea and other littoral nations,” he said.
Make no mistake: while it may appear trivial and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, the outcome of this feud between the two superpowers could well determine the world's next superpower - should the US blinks, it will give China carte blanche to define the geopolitical reality in Asia without fear of US intervention. No wonder this takes place just days after Biden's historic humiliation in Afghanistan.
China’s vast claims to the resource-rich waterways – among the busiest sea lanes in the world – have been a source of growing tension between Beijing, neighbouring governments and Washington for years, and China's escalating demand suggests that China feels it now has the upper hand to press the US in staking its claim to the contested territorial waters.
Meanwhile, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing claims in the South China Sea, and Japan and South Korea have their own disputes with Beijing in the East China Sea. Five years ago, an international tribunal ruled that Beijing’s sweeping claims of almost the entire South China Sea had no legal basis.
To indicate its dismissal of Chinese claims, the US regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises in the region, meant to assert the waterways’ status as international sea routes. But lately there have been near-misses (or hits, as the case may be).
In July, China’s military claimed it “drove away” an American warship that had passed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea – known in China as the Xisha Islands and in Vietnam as the Hoang Sa Islands. The US Navy later said that China’s statement about driving away the US ship was false.
“The United States remains committed to upholding the rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” said Supple, the Pentagon spokesman.
On a visit to Vietnam last week, US Vice-President Kamala Harris said the region needed to do more to stand up to China’s vast territorial claims and aggressive behaviour in the region. “We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” Harris said, even though the United States is not a party to that UN treaty.
China’s new rule was supposed to take effect on Wednesday, according to the country’s Maritime Safety Administration. The Chinese government has not clarified how the new rule would be enforced, but said it would apply the law if vessels failed to comply.
So the next time a US warship crosses through the South China Sea and refuses to report its cargo and information to Beijing, keep a close eye for the resulting fireworks.