As noted earlier, there doesn’t seem to be universal agreement on what the “Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS) means. The Washington Post is reporting that Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, has claimed that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea but would continue to allow others to freely navigate the 1.3 million-square-mile waterway.
On July 23 Secretary Clinton crossed the Chinese by suggesting an multilateral approach to resolution of competing claims. Competing claims involve Japan, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines. Claims to the Spratley Islands group seem to be particularly contentious. There is an outline of competing claims here. China has used force in the past, seizing the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1976. Dai Bingguo, China’s state councilor in charge of foreign policy, had told Secretary Clinton in May during a tense exchange on the region that China viewed its claims to the sea as a “core national interest.” In addition they seem to have thrown down the gauntlet to the US over exercises in the Yellow Sea.
To complicate matters, the Chinese have a new weapon system, and anti-ship ballistic missile, to enforce their claims, that makes the Navy’s traditional response to Chinese aggressiveness appear much more dangerous.