Martel: Ignoring China’s South China Sea Invasion Emboldened Russia to Attack Ukraine

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a naval parade Thursday in the South China Sea.
Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China

Russia alarmed the world on Sunday by reportedly seizing Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov, attacking Ukrainian assets and blocking some of its most important port cities through its illegal command of the Crimean peninsula.

The standoff had become inevitable since Russia built a bridge blocking off the entire Sea of Azov across the Kerch Strait, connecting Crimea to legitimate Russian territory and blocking Ukraine off from the world. The international community neutralized its ability to respond to the ongoing maritime crisis long ago, however, thousands of miles away – in the South China Sea, where the Chinese military has been illegally seizing territory, ramming ships, and arresting fishermen with impunity.

While Russian officials only hint of believing Moscow has sovereignty over all of Ukraine, China has long insisted that most of the South China Sea – including territory belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia – has been inherently part of China “since ancient times.” China has been staking its maritime claim for the past three years in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled China’s activity in the region illegal in 2016; China replied by ignoring the ruling.

Since the ruling, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping proclaimed China, not the international legal system, the “keeper of the international order.” The Sea of Azov dispute proves that Russia, for one, has accepted its new leader, leaving the burden on the international community to assert its authority or surrender to Russia and, in turn, legitimize China.

Russia triggered the maritime standoff on Sunday, seizing two Ukrainian gunboats and a tugboat seeking to enter the Sea of Azov and reach Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s most important port cities. The Ukrainian government had requested Russian permission to travel across the Kerch Strait, the entryway into the Sea of Azov, and received permission before the Russians attacked. In the Ukrainians’ telling, “Russian coast guard vessels … carried out openly aggressive actions against Ukrainian navy ships.” The Russians, Ukrainian leaders contend, shot “to kill” in their seizure of the ships. Kiev is scheduled to consider enacting martial law on Monday.

The Russian government denies that the incident occurred and claims Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko fabricated the incident to boost his poll numbers in an upcoming election. At press time, however, the fate of the sailors aboard the ships in question remains a mystery, other than reports that two of the men were injured in the capture.

A map of Ukraine and its occupied territories shows that Russia had orchestrated the dispute long ago with the annexation of Crimea. Russia invaded the peninsula in 2014 and swiftly declared it no longer part of Ukraine. In the aftermath of that dispute, after which no international action was taken to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia began building a bridge over the Kerch Strait. As the map shows, the bridge effectively turns the Sea of Azov into a lake, eliminating the economic value of locations like Mariupol.

map via

The aggression against Ukraine is not a rekindling of the Crimean invasion or the great Ukrainian-Russian war, which both sides refuse to declare an official such conflict. That conflict never ended in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russian loyalists have laid siege to local communities for years. Emphasizing the continuity of this struggle, Russian rebel soldiers – who Russia insists are not a legitimate part of the Russian military – launched 16 different attacks on Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas within the past 24 hours, according to Ukranian news sources. The attacks have killed at least two Ukrainian soldiers so far.

While the war is not old, the shift in strategy from land to sea is a new one, one arguably inspired by China’s colonization of its neighbors’ territory and the lack of a response to its invasions. China has been ramming its neighbors’ ships and seizing property illegally since at least 2014, emboldened by the complex legal situation in the South China Sea.

Unlike the South China Sea, the legal status of the waters in the Sea of Azov is clear: it belongs to both Ukraine and Russia. What Russia has taken advantage of is the lack of specificity from there. The waters are officially the sovereign territory of both, but the agreement that determined this required both sides to delineate where one country ends and the other begins. They never did.

In contrast, the South China Sea is mostly considered free international waters save for the 12 nautical miles out from the coast of the countries in the sea. UNCLOS is clear in rejecting artificial land constructions as legally part of a country; only land that naturally exists can extend sovereignty into the 12 nautical miles. The Chinese government has imposed its sovereignty over a span of the sea it identifies by the “nine-dash line,” extending deep into international waters and the sovereign territory of six other nations. Beijing claims artificial islands it has constructed near the Spratly and Paracel island chains, technically part of Vietnam and the Philippines, trigger the UNCLOS 12 nautical mile sovereign limit.

The Chinese claim is far more audacious and Beijing has, for years, used similar tactics to the ones Russia used this weekend to enforce its illegal impositions. In 2014, for example, the Chinese military sent ships to ram Vietnamese vessels that had established themselves in Vietnamese waters, attempting to block China from illegally drilling for oil in Vietnamese sovereign territory. In 2016, the Chinese coast guard similarly attacked an Indonesian ship in Indonesian waters – this time, actually ramming into a Chinese vessel towed by the Indonesian coast guard. Indonesia had seized the Chinese ship for illegally fishing in its territory. The same year, China seized an unmanned American Navy vessel in international waters, where UNCLOS allows all nations free travel.

The international legal system attempted to stop China that year. In July 2016, the Hague ruled in a lawsuit by the Philippines that China must evacuate its illegal constructions in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratly Islands. Yet the world did not stop China when Beijing dismissed the ruling entirely. The Philippines, now under the pro-China strongman Rodrigo Duterte, withdrew its position of leadership on the matter; Duterte has repeatedly admitted cowardice in the face of the People’s Liberation Army.

This year, China deployed surface-to-air missiles and heavy bombers to its illegal artificial islands. There is no indication Beijing will suffer any consequences for its invasion and no signs it is complete. Last week, a study revealed new images of more illegal Chinese constructions in the Spratly region of the South China Sea.

The international community – from the China-controlled U.N. Security Council to the nations currently under Chinese invasion – have sent a message loud and clear to other rogue actors that no one will stop a maritime invasion. Russia, after failing to colonize eastern Ukraine for years, appears to have received the message and changed the war theater.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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