The Air Force’s top Pacific Commander said China’s behavior in the Pacific is both provocative and cooperative regarding its military posture and stance on disputed territories in the region.
“I think the territorial disputes and the way they are being handled are things we have concern over. At the same time, they are engaging. There are other cases where they are engaged and handle things in a more appropriate way,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle, Air Force Pacific Commander, said May 5 at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.
Regarding concerns about China’s assertive or aggressive posture in the region, Carlisle mentioned their rapid military buildup to include the construction of an aircraft carrier. He also added that the Chinese Navy was venturing much farther off the coast for operations than it has in prior years.
“Some of the exercises they have done have gone significantly farther out. They’ve continued to expand their ability to operate farther and farther away,” Carlisle added.
Alongside his expressions of concern regarding China’s behavior in the region, Carlisle also praised China for its increased engagement and cooperation with the West.
In particular, he cited China’s planned participation in a large-scale Rim-of-the-Pacific training exercise slated for this summer.
The U.S. Air Force four-star joined other senior U.S. officials in formally questioning the basis for China’s so-called nine-dash line claim regarding the South China Sea. China appears to claim most, if not all of the South China Sea through the assertion of a nine-dash line which vaguely asserts control, access and sovereignty over 1.4 million square miles of islands, Pentagon officials said.
Although U.S. officials say China has not clearly articulated what it means, the nine-dash line can be traced back to China’s ruling party from 1928 to 1949 – the Koumintang. The Koumintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949 when the Communist Party of China took over following civil war in the country, however the concept of the nine-dash line has endured.
“I’m not sure of the legal basis for their nine-dash line,” said Carlisle, who went on to add that he would like to see the matter resolved peacefully.
The U.S. has officially gone on record saying that the People’s Republic of China’s nine-dash line is not in accordance with existing international law.
Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs stating that “under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law.”
China’s nine-dash line claims have implications for a large collection of disputed islands in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands.
The Spratly Islands includes an area of more than 750 reefs, small islands and atolls in the South China Sea off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Highly disputed for centuries, the area is rich in oil and natural gas. Countries claiming rights to territory in the Spratly Islands include China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, there are no provisions granting rights to waters without regard to land-based sovereign rights. In fact, the U.N. treaty specifies that territorial waters extend for 12 miles off of the coast of sovereign territory. This means that, while other countries have a right to peaceful innocent passage within the 12 miles, the waters are regarded as an extension of the territory of the country, a Pentagon official explained.
“Beyond the 12 miles you have high seas freedoms. What that means is you can do what you want to so long as you don’t threaten the economic interests of that country,” a Pentagon official explained.