Five years ago, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in a legally binding decision, ruled against Communist China's claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. China continues vehemently to reject the ruling in its entirety. In March, a huge Chinese fishing fleet descended on Whitsun Reef, which lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. The Philippine government called on China to cease "militarizing the area". Pictured: Whitsun Reef, as seen from space. (Image Source: United States Geological Survey/NASA/Wikimedia Commons)
It has been five years since the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in a legally binding decision known as the South China Sea Arbitration Case, ruled against Communist China's claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
The Philippine government filed the case against China in 2013 after China seized a reef over which both countries claim sovereignty. In addition to ruling against China's claim of historic rights to the South China Sea, the court found that China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration, as well as by constructing artificial islands in the Spratly Islands archipelago, which had caused "severe harm to the coral reef environment".
China has constructed artificial islands around seven reefs in the Spratly Islands archipelago. The islands are central to Beijing's apparent ambition to "have absolute control" over the South China Sea, which holds an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proven and probable reserves, in addition to maritime resources such as fish. Crucially, the South China Sea is also an essential sea route, which sees a third of the world's global shipping pass through it every year. Already in 2018, US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson, then Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command, said that China's construction of the artificial islands meant that China is capable of "controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States".
On the fifth anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's decision, China continues vehemently to reject the ruling in its entirety. According to Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies:
"The Chinese government's position on the arbitration is clear, 'not accept, not participate, and not recognize.' This has come to be widely recognized and accepted by the international community. The 'arbitral award' deemed by China as 'a piece of scrap paper' has long been thrown into the dustbin of history."
China's actions contravening the ruling continue in a number of areas. According to a July 13, 2021 report in The Washington Times:
"China's military recently deployed electronic warning and surveillance aircraft and helicopters on two disputed islands in the South China Sea in what analysts say is a sign that the People's Liberation Army has begun routine air operations from the bases.
"Satellite images obtained by The Washington Times show deployments in May and June of PLA KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Other satellite photos showed the stationing of a Y-9 transport aircraft and Z-8 helicopter to Subi Reef in June and this month...
Satellite imagery of the military aircraft was obtained by J. Michael Dahm, a former Navy intelligence officer currently with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, known as APL.
'The most significant change in military posture in 2021 is the appearance of Chinese special mission aircraft and helicopters at Subi and Mischief Reefs, indicating the PLA may have commenced routine air operations from those airfields,' Mr. Dahm said in an interview."
According to Newsweek:
"These artificial islands 'fill critical gaps in PLA navy capabilities in the South China Sea, especially in terms of reconnaissance and airpower,' Dahm said."
"This shows that China is attempting to increase its control over the region," Dr. Bryce Wakefield, national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), said. "These aircraft will allow China to use assets in the region more effectively, its so-called maritime militia, for example, to wage their campaign of harassment in scenarios short of war."
Also in 2018, breaching a pledge that Chinese President Xi Jinping made not to militarize the islands, China equipped several of its military bases with advanced missiles.
China also claims sovereignty over -- and has militarized some of -- the Paracel Islands, which it has occupied since 1974, and are also claimed by both Vietnam and Taiwan. China has built military installations, including an airfield and artificial harbor, on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels. In July, Vietnam announced that Chinese plans to deploy one of its largest oceanographic research and training vessels to the Paracel Islands without Vietnam's permission would constitute a "violation of the sovereignty and relevant rights of Vietnam".
In addition to the militarization of the South China Sea's islands, reefs and shoals, China continues to ignore the conclusion of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling, that its actions in the South China Sea are destroying the coral reef environment and local maritime life. According to a July 12, 2021 article from Associated Press:
"Satellite images over the last five years show how human waste, sewage and wastewater have accumulated and caused algae in a cluster of reefs in the Spratlys region where hundreds of Chinese fishing ships have anchored in batches, said Liz Derr, who heads Simularity Inc., a software company creating artificial intelligence technologies for satellite imagery analysis.
"At least 236 ships were spotted in the atoll, internationally known as Union Banks, on June 17 alone, she said at a Philippine online news forum on China's actions in the South China Sea, which Beijing has claimed virtually in its entirety.
"'When the ships don't move, the poop piles up,' Derr said. 'The hundreds of ships that are anchored in the Spratlys are dumping raw sewage onto the reefs they are occupying.'
"'This is a catastrophe of epic proportions and we are close to the point of no return,' Derr said."
Earlier, in March, a huge Chinese fishing fleet descended on Whitsun Reef, which lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. The Philippine government called on China to cease "militarizing the area".
China has by far the world's largest fishing fleet, consisting of anywhere between 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats, which account for nearly half of the world's fishing activity. Approximately 17,000 of them belong to China's distant-water fishing fleet.
China has recently also made incursions into Malaysia's exclusive economic zone and near its airspace. Malaysia, according to Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, usually "bends over backwards" to accommodate China. In June, however, the Malaysian government said that it would summon China's ambassador regarding "16 People's Liberation Army Air Force planes that flew over a Malaysian 'maritime zone.'"
Coinciding with the incursions into Malaysia's exclusive economic zone and near its airspace, China Coast Guard vessels have been harassing new Malaysian oil and gas developments at the Kasawari field offshore Malaysia since early June -- the third time in 18 months that China sought to harass Malaysia's oil and gas efforts. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative:
"It demonstrates again Beijing's persistence in challenging its neighbors' oil and gas activities within their own exclusive economic zones. And the air patrol, which was likely not a coincidence, suggests Beijing's willingness to engage in parallel escalation to pressure other claimants to back down."
These tactics are familiar aspects of China's "gray zone" warfare, meant to coerce, intimidate or simply exhaust a country into doing China's bidding. The tactic has perhaps become most well-known through China's continued and escalating campaign to intimidate and exhaust Taiwan and other neighbors both from the air and from the sea. Unless China is stopped, it seems safe to assume that it will continue its aggression.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.