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CRS — Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress

November 21, 2012

Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

This report presents policy and oversight issues for Congress arising from (1) maritime territorial disputes involving China in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) and (2) an additional dispute over whether China has a right under international law to regulate U.S. and other foreign military activities in its 200-nautical-mile maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

China is a party to multiple maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, including, in particular, disputes over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal in the SCS, and the Senkaku Islands in the ECS. Maritime territorial disputes involving China in the SCS and ECS date back many years, and have periodically led to incidents and periods of increased tension. The disputes have again intensified in the past few years, leading to numerous confrontations and incidents, and heightened tensions between China and other countries in the region, particularly Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

In addition to maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, China is involved in a dispute, particularly with the United States, over whether China has a right under international law to regulate the activities of foreign military forces operating within China’s EEZ. The dispute appears to be at the heart of multiple incidents between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace in 2001, 2002, and 2009.

The issue of whether China has a right under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to regulate foreign military activities in its EEZ is related to, but ultimately separate from, the issue of maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS. The two issues are related because China can claim EEZs from inhabitable islands over which it has sovereignty, so accepting China’s claims to islands in the SCS or ECS could permit China to expand the EEZ zone within which China claims a right to regulate foreign military activities.

The EEZ issue is ultimately separate from the territorial disputes issue because even if all the territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS were resolved, and none of China’s claims in the SCS and ECS were accepted, China could continue to apply its concept of its EEZ rights to the EEZ that it unequivocally derives from its mainland coast—and it is in this unequivocal Chinese EEZ that most of the past U.S.-Chinese incidents at sea have occurred.

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