China seeks to increase influence in South China Sea by reclassifying international shipping lanes

Sophia Yan
·3-min read
China has long sought to increase its influence in the South China Sea, but its moves have often been offset by American and Australian intervention -  PETTY OFFICER 2NDCLASS DIANA QUI/AFP
China has long sought to increase its influence in the South China Sea, but its moves have often been offset by American and Australian intervention - PETTY OFFICER 2NDCLASS DIANA QUI/AFP

China has quietly changed how it identifies a vast stretch of international waters in a shipping regulation, indicating it as a “coastal” region, rather than “offshore,” as authorities seek to exert even greater control over the South China Sea. 

The amended regulation, first drafted in the 1970s, went into effect on Saturday, and establishes a “navigation area” from China’s Hainan island in the south, all the way down to the disputed Paracel Islands, which sit east of Vietnam’s coastline.

The revision, however small, allows Beijing yet another avenue to justify its claims in the region.

“The move is pretty consistent with the broader, general patterns of China seeking ‘creeping jurisdiction’ using domestic laws to assert its claims and extend control in the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh,a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“With those domestic laws and regulations being implemented quietly without fanfare, the less likely it’ll attract undue external attention, so that over time a fait accompli is created - in other words, for Beijing to change facts on the ground.” 

The risk, in the long run, is that this area of ocean already flanked by Chinese military interests and installations, could turn a navigational zone to a “future security alert zone,” he said.

The change comes as China has displayed increasing swagger in the South China Sea, where Beijing and a number of Southeast Asian countries all lay claim to the rocks, reefs and waters.

The uninhabited island of Spratly in the South China Sea is one of the many disputed territories in the region - Erik de Castro/Reuters
The uninhabited island of Spratly in the South China Sea is one of the many disputed territories in the region - Erik de Castro/Reuters

China has been accused of stepping up its maritime push in these resource-rich waters while the rest of the world remains busy battling the coronavirus pandemic. 

The US and Australia conducted joint naval exercises this summer in the region, angering Beijing.

In response, the Chinese military in July engaged in drills in the region, deploying bombers and simulating nighttime takeoffs, long-range raids and attacks on sea targets, according to state media. 

Both Washington and Canberra have since officially rejected Chinese claims to the South China Sea. In the past, both countries had stressed the importance of all countries maintaining access to these waters, stopping short of classifying Chinese activity as illegal.

The concern has long been that an increasingly assertive Beijing could use access to the South China Sea – along key international shipping routes – as a tool for economic coercion to squeeze nations during diplomatic rows. 

Beijing’s recent maritime push has extended beyond the South China Sea to the East China Sea, angering Japan. 

The Indian military has also stepped up operations in the Indian Ocean over concerns that China will next look to assert itself at sea against Delhi, after a land border skirmish in June led to a number of Indian casualties.