China to Survey Disputed Territories

In a move sure to escalate already high regional tensions, Chinese authorities have unveiled plans to survey all marine and island territories for marine resources.

China to Survey Disputed Marine Territories for Natural Resources

By Bijoy Das

After establishing Sansha, passing a new maritime regulation from Hainan, and, printing maps on passports, the Chinese authorities have now unveiled a plan to survey all marine and island territories for marine resources. This was reported by the Xinhua website at 09:42:31 hrs (Beijing time) on 10 January 2013.1

Although the report indicates that the survey will be carried out throughout the country, it also specifically mentions Sansha (i.e. South China Sea) and baseline points (which would include all disputed marine territories). The terse report, when translated, reads as follows:

“The 2nd Chinese Comprehensive Survey of Marine and Island Resources will be started sometime in the first half of this year. The survey is expected to be completed by December 2016. By this survey, the Chinese hope to fill earlier gaps regarding the distribution, quality and quantity of resources in important marine and island territories like Sansha and other baseline points.”

Undoubtedly, the unveiling of this new plan would draw criticism from other countries having disputes with China on marine territories (including islands), with the probable exclusion of Taiwan. But of greater concern is the escalation of disputes mainly in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

It remains to be seen what measures countries such as Japan and Vietnam resort to when Chinese survey vessels actually begin conducting surveys in marine territories and islands which they claim to be their own. One has also to watch what security measures these Chinese survey vessels employ to thwart actions from vessels of the other claimant countries.

Earlier, countries in this part of the world involved in such disputes have been known to have resorted to building structures, cutting sea cables, using water cannons, permitting civilian demonstrations, allowing military or para-military vessels and aircraft to pass and patrol, and the like, to strengthen their claims on such territories. Although there has been talk of joint exploitation of resources, nothing has really happened on the ground to show that these disputes can be amicably resolved by the parties without sensationalising them from the angle of national territory and sovereignty.2

Of late, the trend is to strengthen their respective claims through administrative and legislative measures. The aim is to showcase the supremacy of the respective parliaments and governments. This approach also tends to make all “national territory” non-negotiable. Japan, China and Vietnam have all attempted this in the recent past.

The current move by China also seems to have been made with the objective of strengthening its claim to disputed marine territories by conducting “surveys” which a country normally does in its own territory. It also has the potential of keeping the other disputants on the edge. Besides, the sheer frequency with which China has recently been able to come up with such claims has also given it a definite psychological advantage over others as a first mover.

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Source: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

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