Lebensraum is the German concept for “living space.” Lebensraum is the principle behind Adolf Hitler’s foreign policy to invade Central and Eastern Europe. Hitler needed new territory that could supply labor, food, and raw materials to Nazi Germany’s economy. China today has its own maritime Lebensraum in the South China Sea. China wants to control the South China Sea to supply its economy with all the natural resources in the South China Sea. China also claims it needs to control the South China Sea for its own security because this sea was the route used in the past by Western powers to invade China. This need for security, of course, is not a valid ground for seizing maritime areas that belong to other states under international law.
Under its nine-dash line, China claims ownership to almost the entire South China Sea, including all the fish, oil, gas and other mineral resources in the sea. Despite the absence of any historical evidence as ruled by an international arbitral tribunal, China asserts that 2,000 years ago it was the first country to discover, name, exploit, and exercise sovereignty over the South China Sea islands, their surrounding waters and resources. This is, of course, laughable because it was only in the mid-1900s that petroleum companies discovered oil and gas in the seabed.
All states with an interest in the South China Sea, except China, consider this Chinese claim fake history. But this has not deterred China from using threats and intimidation to assert its claim, which encroaches on the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Asean coastal states. China’s claim encroaches on 80 percent of the Philippines’ EEZ in the West Philippine Sea, 80 percent of Vietnam’s entire EEZ, and 80 percent of Malaysia’s EEZ off the coast of Borneo facing the South China Sea.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) governs the ownership and exploitation of the seas and their seabed. China and the five Asean coastal states prejudiced by the nine-dash line are all parties to Unclos. The Philippines has won a landmark ruling from an Unclos arbitral tribunal that China’s nine-dash line claim has no basis whatsoever in fact and in law. This means that the Philippines and other Asean coastal states have their own EEZs free from any Chinese claim or encroachment.
On Feb. 17, 2020, a Chinese missile corvette locked its radar fire control system on BRP Conrado Yap, which was passing through Rizal Reef on its way to Malampaya off the coast of Palawan. A warship that locks its fire control system on another warship commits a hostile act since such act is only one step away from actual firing, which can take less than one second.
The Chinese know that Philippine navy ships routinely conduct patrols around Malampaya, where the Philippines operates its only gas field that supplies 40 percent of the power requirement of Luzon. China’s nine-dash line encroaches on a portion of the Malampaya gas field. The radar-locking incident is a grave escalation by China since the target was a Philippine navy ship on its way to patrol the Malampaya gas field.
In early April 2020, China’s survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8, accompanied by Chinese coast guard vessels, entered the EEZ of Vietnam to conduct surveys. There was a tense stand-off between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard vessels. Then in mid-April 2020 the same Haiyang Dizhi 8, accompanied by Chinese coast guard vessels, proceeded to Malaysia’s EEZ in an area where a Malaysian-commissioned ship was drilling for petroleum. Another tense stand-off took place between Chinese and Malaysian coast guard vessels.
It is high time for the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia to stand up together against this Chinese bullying. The three countries should conduct joint patrols in each other’s EEZ to assert the right of coastal states to their own EEZs as guaranteed under Unclos and international law. If China still persists in its bullying, the three countries can join the US, UK, France, and Australia in joint patrols in the three countries’ EEZs in the South China Sea.
Joint patrols in the EEZ for collective defense are allowed under the UN Charter. Under Unclos and international law, they are peaceful and non-offensive means of asserting and preserving sovereign rights in the EEZ.