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Report to Congress on Chinese Maritime Disputes

The following is the May 24, 2018 Congressional Research Service report, Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress.

From the Report:

China’s actions for asserting and defending its maritime territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims in the East China (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS) have heightened concerns among observers that China may be seeking to dominate or gain control of its near-seas region, meaning the ECS, the SCS, and the Yellow Sea. Chinese domination over or control of this region could substantially affect U.S. strategic, political, and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere.

U.S. Navy Admiral Philip Davidson, in responses to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee for an April 17, 2018, hearing before the committee to consider nominations, including Davidson’s nomination to become Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), stated in part that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

China is a party to multiple territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, including, in particular, disputes over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal in the SCS, and the Senkaku Islands in the ECS. China depicts its territorial claims in the SCS using the so-called map of the nine-dash line that appears to enclose an area covering roughly 90% of the SCS. Some observers characterize China’s approach for asserting and defending its territorial claims in the ECS and SCS as a “salami-slicing” strategy that employs a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.

In addition to territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, China is involved in a dispute, particularly with the United States, over whether China has a right under international law to regulate the activities of foreign military forces operating within China’s EEZ. The dispute appears to be at the heart of incidents between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace in 2001, 2002, 2009, 2013, and 2014.

The U.S. position on territorial and EEZ disputes in the Western Pacific (including those involving China) includes the following elements, among others:

  • The United States supports the principle that disputes between countries should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.
  • The United States supports the principle of freedom of seas, meaning the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations in international law. The United States opposes claims that impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that belong to all nations.
  • The United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the ECS and SCS.
  • Although the United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the ECS and SCS, the United States does have a position on how competing claims should be resolved: Territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.
  • Claims of territorial waters and EEZs should be consistent with customary international law of the sea and must therefore, among other things, derive from land features. Claims in the SCS that are not derived from land features are fundamentally flawed.
  • Parties should avoid taking provocative or unilateral actions that disrupt the status quo or jeopardize peace and security. The United States does not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability.
  • The United States, like most other countries, believes that coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZs, but do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs.
  • U.S. military surveillance flights in international airspace above another country’s EEZ are lawful under international law, and the United States plans to continue conducting these flights as it has in the past.
  • The Senkaku Islands are under the administration of Japan and unilateral attempts to change the status quo raise tensions and do nothing under international law to strengthen territorial claims.

China’s actions for asserting and defending its maritime territorial and EEZ claims in the ECS and SCS raise several potential policy and oversight issues for Congress, including whether the United States has an adequate strategy for countering China’s “salami-slicing” strategy, whether the United States has taken adequate actions to reduce the risk that the United States might be drawn into a crisis or conflict over a territorial dispute involving China, and whether the United States should become a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

  • Leatherstocking

    Wow – the author’s name was redacted. Is it threats or security concerns?

    • Jay

      Security. Probably potential threats from Trump towards anyone who might interfere with the Trump Organization, Ivanka’s Chinese trademarks and sweatshop labor for her fashion line and Chinese bank and sovereign wealth fund loans to Jared to bail him out of massive debt. Trump’s profits should not be trifled with as he’s got the backing of a real tough guy in Putin who kills anyone who crosses him. Donald is very grateful for that kind of muscle. MAGA

  • TomD

    Quite a reasonable report, which gives good general positions on how to resolve the existing disputes.

    However, one quibble: the line “The U.S. position on territorial and EEZ disputes in the Western Pacific (including those involving China)…” implies there are disputes that do not involve China. It might be good for us to see more about those.

    • .Hugo.

      pretty much the other way round.
      .
      the south china sea is not the western pacific, that’s how the u.s. wants to use such title to intervene with scs regional affairs when it is itself a non-scs state.
      .

      • TomD

        C’mon, minor seas, gulfs, etc. are always associated with the nearest major ocean. The Gulf of Mexico is an arm of the North Atlantic, for example. So we have our choice: the SCS is either the Western Pacific or Indian.

        • .Hugo.

          everybody can see the non-scs state the u.s. is only using such name to intervene with scs regional affairs, you certainly have a choice, and every choice comes with consequences and cost too. 🙂
          .

          • TomD

            The SCS has regional affairs? Who knew! I’m looking forward to collecting their coins and stamps!

          • .Hugo.

            there are regional affairs everywhere in the world, and the scs is of no exception. wonder how often you check the regional news….
            .

          • TomD

            No, I was just pointing out that your choice of language implies a degree of independence in the SCS Chinese islands from China that is not true. That’s all.

          • .Hugo.

            there is no “degree of independence” in the chinese scs territory, for china owns the 4 major island chains in the scs by historical rights.

  • .Hugo.

    if the u.s. really supports the principal of freedom of seas, then it should sign on unclos.
    .
    however, as unclos will restrict the u.s. naval activities, it just won’t sign it (but still wants to enjoy its rights).
    .
    the u.s. has wrongly given the administration right of the diaoyu islands to japan at the height of the cold war and without consulting either the roc and prc government. both chinese governments have never recognized such arrangement, and the diaoyu islands are always under the administration of the yilan county of the taiwan province of china (either roc or prc).
    .