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Maritime Expansion of Modern China

—Background and Outlook— (Part 1)

Kenji Takita
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Political Science and International Political Science

Award issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration

 On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (based in the Hague, the Netherlands) issued an award for the arbitration case brought by the Republic of the Philippines regarding development by China in the South China Sea(Note 1). As expected, China expressed extreme opposition to this award. At a press conference, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “this award is nothing more than a scrap of paper; it is invalid and has no binding force.” Zhenmin also criticized Japan, asserting that our country inflamed the issue despite having no involvement in matters related to the South China Sea. He also claimed that Shunji Yanai designated judges who heard the arbitration case, thus influencing the court proceedings. During a meeting with President Tusk of the European Council on July 12, Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed that China would not recognize the award. Furthermore, at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) starting on July 15 in Ulan Bator, Premier Li Keqiang made high-handed remarks such as “Japan should mind its own business” to Prime Minister Abe. Overall, China as a nation is further strengthening its position of ignoring international law.

In response to criticism levied by China, Shunji Yanai, who was President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at that time, made the following counterargument: “Each side in the case has the right to select two of the five judges. The Philippines selected a German judge, but China (which declined to participate in the arbitration) chose not to exercise its right. Therefore, in accordance with regulations stated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, I selected the remaining judge in my role as President. Prior to finalizing the selection, I sent a written notification to inform China of my proposed selections, but I received no answer. Ultimately, I selected a judge from Poland, a country which was not involved in the dispute and had no concern in the matter. The remaining three judges would normally have been appointed based on discussions between the Philippines and China. However, since China declined to participate, in accordance with regulations, I acted as President and selected judges from France, Canada, and Ghana. All of these judges were leading experts with knowledge on maritime law.”(Note 2)

The arbitration award which was issued three and a half years following submission by the Philippines consists of five main pillars. Firstly, the Tribunal concluded that there was no international legal basis for application of the Nine-Dash Line for which China claims historic territorial rights. Secondly, the Tribunal concluded that no island as defined in maritime law exists in the Spratly Islands. The Tribunal also found that reclaiming rocks or coral and building structures does not give China rights to territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, or airspace. Thirdly, the Tribunal concluded that land reclamation in the South China Sea by China and fishing by Chinese fishing boats had caused severe harm to the surrounding aquatic ecosystem. Fourthly, the Tribunal concluded that China maritime vessels had unlawfully interfered with Philippine petroleum exploration and fishing. Fifthly, the Tribunal criticized how China engaged in large-scale land reclamation and building of structures shortly after commencement of the arbitration.(Note 3)

Transitioning from a continental nation to a maritime nation

Historically, China has been a continental nation, and its motive for maritime expansion was weak, if not completely nil. The communist government established in 1949 embarked on a policy of strengthening the Chinese army in order to secure sovereignty over interior regions of mainland China. In effect, this resulted in the Chinese navy being neglected. Moreover, conflict between China and the Soviet Union intensified around 1960. This led to even further strengthening of the Chinese army in order to protect a border stretching 4,380 kilometers. Through these actions, China adhered to its tradition of being a continental nation. In March 1969, a military border conflict between China and the Soviet Union occurred at Zhenbao Island on the Ussuri River. This incident caused former President Richard Nixon of the United States to worry over the possibility of a full-scale Sino-Soviet nuclear war. However, the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union around 1990 also alleviated tensions between China and the Soviet Union. Eventually, China and the Soviet Union (Russia) were able to resolve their border disputes. China entered into the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement for eastern regions in 1991, and then entered into a subsequent agreement for western regions in 1994. An agreement for remaining undetermined national borders was reached in 2004, thus decreasing the possibility of war on the Eurasian continent. Territorial disputes which had existed with the Republic of Tajikistan for 130 years were resolved in January 2011. Furthermore, in 2009, China agreed to establish a direct hotline with India in regards to the return of the Arunachal Pradesh State, areas in northeastern India which had been the subject of dispute for many years. Although the hotline did not resolve the dispute, it has succeeded in alleviating tension. The resolution of mainland border disputes is a prerequisite for maritime expansion. In other words, China has fulfilled the conditions for transitioning its basic national character from a continental nation to a maritime nation.

Transitioning from a coastal navy to a modern navy

After the deaths of Zhou Enlai (January 1976) and Mao Zedong (September 1976), leaders of the Chinese Revolution, Deng Xiaoping endured the pressure exerted by the Gang of Four and was restored to power for the third time in July 1977. Deng wrote the Four Modernizations (March 1978) into the new constitution and established diplomatic relations between China and the United States (January 1979). However, when the Regan administration of the United States began to show signs of restrengthening its relationship with Taiwan(Note 4), Deng ordered General Liu Huaqing (General in the Chinese Navy; Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989 to 1997 (position held by top uniformed personnel)) to implement the First Island Chain doctrine (August 1982). Accordingly, China became interested in constructing a navy for maritime expansion. The principal theme of the People’s Liberation Army, and also the principal raison d’etre for said army, underwent a major transition from protecting Chinese-Soviet (Russian) borders to annexation of Taiwan—when making an analogy to irredenta Italia (unredeemed Italy), Taiwan is considered as unredeemed China. China viewed America as protecting Taiwan, and America therefore replaced the Soviet Union (Russia) as China’s greatest hypothetical enemy. From the establishment of the Chinese nation until the beginning of the 1980s, the Chinese navy was essentially limited to a coastguard organization charged with protecting a coastline said to stretch 16,000 kilometers. However, almost in conjunction with the country’s economic growth, the Chinese navy modernized itself with intense consciousness for the movement of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Liu created a plan for the construction of a modern navy. According to that plan, (1) during the 18-year period from 1982 to 2000, the Chinese navy would make preparations to completely protect the Chinese coastal zone, (2) from 2000 to 2010, China would establish naval supremacy in the interior regions of the First Island Chain (Chinese coastal waters), (3) from 2010 to 2020, China would establish naval supremacy in the interior regions of the Second Island Chain, constructing aircraft carriers to achieve that goal, (4) from 2020 to 2040, China would break the monopoly of the American navy on the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, and (5) in 2040, China would ultimately complete the construction of a navy which could oppose the American navy.

In February 1992, an era corresponding to phase (1) of the above plan, China enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China Concerning the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which defined the Senkaku Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands as Chinese territory. Then, in March 1997, China enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China on National Defense, which clearly stated strict defense of maritime interests. Also in 1997, Shi Yunsheng succeeded the position of General from Liu. In conjunction with promulgation of the aforementioned Law on National Defense, Shi established a strategy to expand the Chinese navy from a coastal navy to a modern navy. This strategy clearly stated the concepts of the First Island Chain and Second Island Chain(Note 5). Of course, these concepts were initially national defense policy inside of the military. However, the concepts gradually became widely recognized throughout the world as the fundamental defense policy of the Communist Party of China.

On March 14, 2005, an era corresponding to phase (2) of the plan, the National People’s Congress adopted the Anti-Secession Law and put the law into effect immediately. This law formalized the use of non-peaceful means to prevent the Taiwan independence movement in the event that Taiwan declares independence, and it was enacted in order to restrain the strong inclination towards independence as shown by the administration of Chen Shui-bian. The law was met with strong resistance from Taiwan. Next, on December 26, 2009, the National People’s Congress adopted the Island Protection Law, which is intended (1) to restrict development of islands near the continental coast, (2) to prevent destruction of ecosystems, and (3) to protect national maritime interests. The law was put into effect on March 1, 2010(Note 6). On February 26, 2010, the National People’s Congress legislated the National Defense Mobilization Law, which went into effect on July 1, 2010. This law was formulated based on the Law of the People’s Republic of China on National Defense (March 1997). Assuming the occurring of a contingency within China, the law gives the National People’s Congress Standing Committee the power to issue a mobilization order for all males from the age of 18 to 60 and all females from the age of 18 to 55, and to requisition the goods and production facilities of private citizens and organizations.

Currently, 2016 corresponds to phase (3) of the plan. However, since the targets defined in phase (2) have not yet been achieved, it appears that Chinese President Xi Jinping and the People’s Liberation Army (particularly the navy) are growing impatient. This impatience is manifesting in the hard-line and one-way policy for the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands.

  1. (Note 1)^ On January 22, 2013, the Philippines started arbitration procedures based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and served China with notification of said action. However, China has rejected all aspects of the arbitration procedures and emphasized that the issue should be resolved through negotiation by the countries involved.
  2. (Note 2)^ Asahi Shimbun newspaper; July 14, 2016.
  3. (Note 3)^ Press Release: The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China), The Hague, 12 July 2016. Permanent Court of Arbitration
  4. (Note 4) ^ The Shanghai Communique issued in February 1972 documented arguments presented by both the United States and China in respect to Taiwan, which was an unprecedented format in diplomatic history. Upon normalizing diplomatic relations with China in January 1979, the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligated the American government to supply self-defense weapons to Taiwan.
  5. (Note 5)^ The First Island Chain refers to a line extending from Kyushu through Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines and reaching Borneo Island. This island line was established to prevent intrusion by America, the primary potential enemy of China. The Second Island Chain refers to a line extending from the Izu Islands through the Ogasawara Islands, Guam, Saipan, and reaching Papua New Guinea. This island line is recognized as an ocean area in which approach by the American navy must be denied in the event of the Taiwan contingency (if Taiwan were to declare independence).
  6. (Note 6) ^ Chinese territory contains 6,900 islands with an area of more than 500 km2. It is estimated that 6,000 of those islands are uninhabited and that more than 1,400 islands are unnamed.

<*Continued in Part 2

(Excerpted from the October edition of Hakumon)

Kenji Takita
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Political Science and International Political Science
Kenji Takita was born in Yokohama in August 1946.
In March 1970, he graduated from the Department of English, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
In March 1977, he completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University, finishing without a degree.
From April 1987 to present, he serves as Professor in the Faculty of Law, Chuo University.
From March 1991 to March 1993, he was a visiting researcher at the George Washington University (Washington DC).
From April 2002 to March 2008, he was Director of the Chuo University Institute of Policy and Cultural Studies.
As social activities, he served as a committee member and lecturer for the UNU Global Seminar, a key committee member for the Council on East Asian Community, a committee member for the Kanagawa International Foundation’s intercollegiates international seminar, and more.
His major written works include The Road to the Pacific Power, America (Yushindo, 1996), The Road to the East Asian Community (writer, editor: Chuo University Press, 2006), International Politics: No. 150 - The World and American Diplomacy after the Cold War (responsible editor: the Japan Association of International Relations, 2007), Great East Japan Earthquake and Issues Facing Japan (published in the Chuo Univ. Review; the Chuo Univ. Review Editing Department, January 2012), International Order Created by America (writer, editor: Minerva Shobo, 2014), Typology of Globalization Theory (published in Globalization and Realization of a Global Society, edited by Satoshi Hoshino; Chuo University Press, 2014)