What’s in a name? An entire sea, says Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai. On Sept. 14, at a defense conference in London, Yuan said that “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China,” according to defense media. The commander of the Chinese navy’s North Sea fleet added that the vast waterway has been Chinese from the time of the Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea’s rocks, shoals, reefs and islets as its own, carving out the waterway with a so-called Nine Dash Line that extends southward toward Borneo to include 2 million sq km of sea. However, five other governments — those of Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines — are also vying for ownership of various bits of sand and rock in the resource-rich waters. Maritime clashes over these shoals and reefs have, over the decades, claimed dozens of lives.
Tensions have escalated again over the past 18 months, as China has expanded the disputed territory it controls by reclaiming land around tiny islets. While other countries have also engaged in island-building, China’s efforts far outstrip those of other claimants. Defense analysts believe the People’s Liberation Army will be able to land fighter jets on these artificial islands, turning them into what U.S. Pacific Command commander Admiral Harry Harris characterized as potential forward operating bases during possible combat situations. This summer Harris called China’s island expansion “changing facts on the ground [by] essentially creating false sovereignty.”
While the U.S. says it takes no side in the dispute, Washington has defended freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has called on Beijing to try to resolve territorial disputes through international arbitration. This summer, in fact, the Philippines took China to court in the Hague, through the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China has refused to participate in the court proceedings, arguing that the South China Sea dispute is not covered by the U.N. treaty.
Meanwhile, there is no word as to whether Vice Admiral Yuan thinks the Indian Ocean belongs to India — or the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico — simply because of their names.