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Why an Uninvited Chinese Ship Just Visited a Shoal on Malaysia’s Continental Shelf

South China Sea map
South China Sea map

The passage of a Chinese civilian ship across part of Malaysia’s continental shelf this month shows China aims to bolster its claim over a widely contested sea in the face of U.S. opposition, observers of the dispute say.

The Sansha II, a 400-seat transport vessel, parked briefly at James Shoal around July 16 and then returned to a base closer to the Chinese mainland, according to ship activity maps, a U.S. think tank and a U.S. Naval War College researcher. The submerged feature sits at the southern boundary of Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea and within Malaysia’s 370-kilometer maritime exclusive economic zone.

China vies for sovereignty over the sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of which have weaker militaries and less infrastructure on the sea’s tiny islets. Claimants prize the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea for fish, energy reserves and shipping lanes.

Southeast Asian countries that dispute China's claims worry that the transport could someday ferry supplies to fortify Chinese-controlled artificial islands in the sea's Spratly archipelago near James Shoal, said Shahriman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies research organization in Kuala Lumpur.

“I think Southeast Asian claimants will be concerned about the possible dual use nature of the Sansha II,” Lockman said. “Its recent voyage could be interpreted as a familiarization trip. Although the ship is designed for passengers and cargo, it could also be used to resupply China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys.”

The 128-meter-long transport would have visited the shoal days after U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the submerged feature doesn’t belong to Beijing. The U.S. government has no claim to the sea but seeks to control rival superpower China's maritime expansion.

“James Shoal is often cited in PRC propaganda as the ‘southernmost territory of China,’” Pompeo said July 13. “International law is clear. An underwater feature like James Shoal cannot be claimed by any state and is incapable of generating maritime zones.”

China cites historical usage records to defend its maritime claims and rejected Pompeo’s words.

“It’s pretty unusual for [the Sansha II] to go 1,000 miles from shore to James Shoal,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It was clearly meant to send a message immediately after the statement, because the U.S. statement specifically called out James Shoal,” Poling said.

Chinese naval ships visit the shoal about once a year to assert sovereignty over the same sea tract, Poling said. Malaysian gas and oil projects operate in the nearby Spratly Islands.

Chinese officials hope the transport's voyage will demonstrate to other countries civilian authority over the outer limits of their nine-dash line, said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. The line is composed of nine dashes that roughly delineate China’s claim to about 90 percent of the sea.

“What they’re doing is just part of an overall effort to try to make it appear that the entire South China Sea is under their civilian control and civilian administrations,” Batongbacal said.

The Sansha II was christened about a year ago to “take on multiple roles,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency says. Roles include transport and supply services, emergency rescue, medical assistance and scientific surveys on small islands, it says.

James Shoal, being 20 meters underwater, cannot be used by any single country to claim a separate, surrounding maritime economic zone under international law, analysts believe.

For China, “it’s an excessive claim that has no basis,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.