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Maritime Law Expected to Give Beijing an Edge in South China Sea Legal Disputes

This undated file photo released on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, by Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) shows a Chinese Cost Guard ship sails in North Natuna Sea.

Chinese officials will pass a basic maritime law to formalize their sovereignty claims over the contested, resource-rich South China Sea and defend those claims more effectively in the international legal space, media reports and analysts say.

A plan disclosed at annual legislative sessions in Beijing early this month calls for approving a basic maritime law, media outlets in China reported. The country must brace for “legal struggles” and “resolutely defend national maritime interests,” the plan says as quoted by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post news website.

Experts in the Asia Pacific believe China will use the law to bolster its claims to about 90% of the sea located in Western Pacific Ocean, especially if another country takes it to international court as the Philippines did in 2013 — on its way to a victory over Beijing in 2016. China rejected the outcome as a “farce.”

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the sea that stretches from Hong Kong to the island of Borneo. The 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway is prized for fisheries, shipping lanes and undersea fossil fuel reserves.

Vietnam hinted last year it was weighing its own international court case against China.

“I think China knows this, so they’re just trying to lawyer up, as it were, in the South China Sea for that eventuality,” said Derek Grossman, senior analyst with the U.S.-based Rand Corp. research organization.

The Beijing government, backed by the world’s third strongest armed forces, took a lead in the six-way maritime dispute about a decade ago by landfilling tiny islets and placing military equipment on some. Chinese naval drills and passage of vessels through the claims of other countries have prompted the United States to send warships to the sea, including two forays under President Joe Biden.

China cites historical usage records to back its claims, but an international arbitration court in The Hague rejected that argument’s legal validity in its 2016 decision.

A law that supports Chinese activity in the contested sea will irritate other countries, said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“It has to befit China’s status as a rising power,” Koh said. “Once they have it, then I think it will start to create regional attention. People will start to take a jab at the law itself and see what kind of implications they can drive when it comes to maritime disputes.”

National People’s Congress delegate Shao Zhiqing proposed a basic maritime law in 2019 to protect China’s maritime safety and promote its development at sea including trade routes, the government-run Academy of Ocean of China [cq] says in an online statement.

Shao raised the legal question again at the legislative sessions last year.

China commonly passes laws in the face of domestic or regional disputes to use as justification when facing pressure from offshore, especially in the legal space, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

“For the outer world, they’re saying they have legal evidence, so they can use that to carry out movements to protect their own interests,” Huang said.

China cites its 2005 Anti-Secession Law when warning Taiwan not to seek independence, for example. Taiwan has been self-ruled since the 1940s, but China says the island should fall under its flag. It has threatened military force, if needed, to unite the two sides. The National Security Law passed last year makes it easier for China to crack down on Hong Kong protesters and reduces Hong Kong’s autonomy.

A maritime law would not change China’s occupation of islets or passage of vessels to unnerve other countries with undersea energy exploration projects, experts say. Legal disputes aside, they say, China wants to show its power relative to other countries.

To show that China is a “great maritime nation,” Chinese leaders need a “comprehensive set of policies and documents” to back up that status, Koh said.