When it comes to enhancing China’s legitimate presence in the South China Sea region, one thing deserves special attention: improving search and rescue (SAR) operations in the waters.
The South China Sea has many vital trade routes. About one-third of China’s total trade volume, roughly totaling $1.5 trillion, is shipped through lines on the South China Sea every year. Nearly 60 percent of China’s energy imports, as well as 40 percent of global trade, depend on those lines.
However, security and safety in the regions are vulnerable. There are over 200 islands and reefs in the South China Sea region.
Ancient Chinese sailors thought those submerged reefs were “magnetic,” attracting boats and leading to shipwrecks, which are still common in the area today.
The sea lanes here also suffer from flourishing piracy, with 30 percent to 40 percent of global piracy happening in the waters every year.
Besides, Islamic extremists and terrorist groups, like the Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al Qaeda-linked group, are rampant in the region.
China has a responsibility for the security of the sea lanes on the South China Sea. According to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue in 1979, the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee divided the world’s oceans into 13 SAR areas, and the countries concerned have delimited SAR regions for which they are responsible.
The 1979 convention regulates that China is mainly responsible for the SAR work in the South China Sea region north of 10 degrees north latitude. Singapore shares responsibility with China in the region between 10 and 12 degrees north latitude, but China takes a greater responsibility.
Moreover, in the region covered by the nine-dash line of marine territory that it claims, China is inescapably responsible for SAR work.
Nevertheless, China’s regional SAR work is weak. China doesn’t have any ports or airports in this region that could station SAR aircraft and ships.
Currently, when China carries out SAR work, it sends aircrafts and ships from Hainan Province, meaning two to three hours to reach the accident zone by air or two to three days by sea. This blocks China from conducting effective SAR operations.
China should build airports and ports to establish its SAR bases in the South China Sea. The geographical conditions there are suitable for a SAR base.
For example, reefs like Meiji Reef and Zhubi Reef are ideal places to build airports or ports. China should make a special effort to fulfill its humanitarian obligations.
Under the background of increasing conflicts among claimant countries in the South China Sea region, China’s any move to enhance its legitimate existence in the region risks misinterpretation. However, the delimiting of SAR regions is irrelevant to sovereignty.
Even if China builds airports and ports in its SAR regions in the South China Sea, this shouldn’t be an excuse for other countries to reproach China.
The Chinese mainland could also increase cooperation with Taiwan. Taiwan has built airports on Taiping Island. The mainland and Taiwan could cooperate in SAR operations by mutually opening their airports and ports. And vessels for SAR operations of both sides could also set up a correspondence.
This would be helpful to establish sound maritime interaction between them and an important step of gradually establishing mutual trust.
As a responsible global power, China needs to put more weight on its obligations in SAR operations in the South China Sea and cherish the opportunity to enhance its legitimate presence in the region amid increasing disputes.
The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Yu Jincui based on an interview with Yin Zhuo, director of the Chinese Navy Advisory Committee for Informatization and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.¬†firstname.lastname@example.org