Is China Providing Public Goods, Strengthening Maritime Claims, or Both?

On March 17th, 2023, the China Daily reported that the Chinese marine rescue vessel “Nanhai Rescue 115”, stationed in Fiery Cross Reef, has rescued a Panamanian cargo vessel that suffered a main engine failure and was drifting in the South China Sea. The Panamanian ship was later successfully towed into the waters of the Pearl River on March 12th.

After fundamentally completing the island reclamation and construction of seven features in the Spratly Islands in 2015, China has repeatedly claimed to use these structures to provide public goods. For example, in June 2015, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang stated that the main purpose of China’s construction activities was to help China to meet its international obligations and responsibilities in the areas such as supporting the passage of vessels, providing search-and-rescue services, maintaining maritime security, conducting scientific research, conserving the environment, etc. This statement was later affirmed by Mr. Kang’s successor, Mrs. Hua Chunying in March 2017.

From China’s perspective, it has been providing public goods in the Spratly Islands. In terms of infrastructure, China has built at least five lighthouses on Chinese-controlled features (2016); established at least three scientific and environmental research stations in Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef (2020). In terms of vessels, China has deployed Nanhai Rescue vessels & hospital ships to the Spratly Islands.

It is necessary to note that China rarely talks about providing public goods in the Paracel Islands - unlike the Spratly Islands. According to the South China Sea Arbitration Ruling in 2016, by reclaiming on an unprecedented scale in the aforementioned area, China has “caused severe harm to the coral reef environment” and “has violated its obligation under Articles 192 and 194 of [UNCLOS] to preserve and protect the marine environment”.

China Daily’s article said that the Panamanian cargo ship suffered engine damage at a point 120 nautical miles southwest of Vanguard Bank (called Wan’an Tan and is considered “in China's Nansha Islands” by Beijing). Vanguard Bank is located about 160 nautical miles from the coast of Vũng Tàu (Việt Nam) and more than 600 nautical miles from Hainan. It is necessary to note that Vanguard Bank is an inseparable part of Vietnam’s continental shelf, and falls under Vietnamese sovereignty under international law.

Efforts to provide search-and-rescue services and maintain the safe passage of vessels on the sea should be praised. However, other intentions because this action, which potentially affects sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the coastal state in areas that have been regulated by the 1982 UNCLOS, should be noted as well.


The post is originally published here

Translated by Trieu Khanh

Revised by HD, Viet Ha