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TematicheCina e Indo-Pacifico“New normality” in South China Sea: The erosion of...

“New normality” in South China Sea: The erosion of Philippine sovereignty and China’s assertive projection into the region

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During the 19th biennial meeting of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, which took place in Qingdao, China in April 2024, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Zhang Youxia, stated that China’s territorial sovereignty “admits no violations and cannot be questioned”.

His tone is very similar to that used by his predecessors over the past decade, but the context and audience represent a significant new development. The Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), as it is known internationally, involves all Pacific nations; it is intended as a venue for creating dialogue among the leaders of regional navies and discussing cooperative initiatives. This setting is far from the usual tone employed by Zhang, who added that “maritime containment, encirclement, and blockades around the islands could plunge the world into a vortex of division and turbulence”. The reference is clear: it pertains to the joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines that will take place concurrently with the forum and, for the first time, outside Philippine territorial waters.

International rulings have denied Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, the “nine-dash line” being the main territorial claim China makes beyond its borders. Essentially, Beijing claims nearly the entire South China Sea, and the nine-dash line even skirts the coasts of other nations in the region, violating both the 12-nautical-mile coastal right sanctioned by international law and the exclusive economic rights within 200 nautical miles from their coasts. These claims have never been openly conceptualized; Beijing simply adapts its claims depending on the context and the interlocutor. Particularly, the overlap between fishing rights, resource exploitation, and territorial sovereignty claims are often intrinsically connected. Chinese fishing vessels, the coast guard of the People’s Republic of China, and the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army appear as integrated actors within a single, coordinated design.

Beijing’s claims were initially promoted in the years immediately following the founding of the PRC and were not discussed or considered by the international community until the last decade. An international tribunal already established in 2016 that the nine-dash line provided no legal basis for China’s claims, but Beijing has ignored this decision and continues to insist on the legitimacy of the line. The map of the South China Sea drawn by Beijing extends to James Shoal, a small sandbank lying at a depth of 22 meters on the seabed, off the Spratlys. James Shoal is located about 80 km from the Malaysian coast and about 1,800 km from the nearest mainland Chinese land, and being an underwater structure, it cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating maritime zones. Yet, Zengmu Ansha, the Mandarin name for this underwater sandbank, is known to all Chinese students. From elementary school, textbooks, songs, and rhymes recite the boundaries of the People’s Republic of China, citing James Shoal as the southernmost point of Chinese territorial sovereignty. Further north, Japan continues to defend its control over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from incursions by the Chinese coast guard; Vietnam with disputes over the Paracels and Spratlys as well as parts of the Vietnamese coast, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia for the southern part of the South China Sea. The Philippines defends sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, a right sanctioned by the ruling of an arbitration tribunal established under the United Nations Convention, which is routinely ignored by Beijing.

China has rejected the tribunal’s ruling, continuing to support its territorial claims and implementing actions that erode Philippine sovereignty in its territorial waters through patrols, threats to fishermen from other countries, political claims, and especially with an unprecedented activity of dredging and building artificial islands. A dynamic similar to the current situation in the Taiwan Strait, a continual erosion of sovereignty through hostile acts that, while not constituting critical events, aim at a redefinition of normality. Beijing is accustoming the entire world to a series of violations of international laws, pushing the limits of acceptable actions while supporting claims justified by historical readings, both for the Taiwanese issue and for the borders of the South China Sea, widely contested by scholars and analysts.

Stefano Pelaggi

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