Territorial disputes have plagued the South China Sea for the past sixty years, inciting episodes of heated conflict followed by periods of relative inaction. Various states in the region, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam have claimed various territories or islands within the Sea as their own, based on a wide variety of justifications. But an upsurge in tension during the recent years has sparked concerns that the area is becoming a flashpoint with possible global consequences. It is also evident from the fact that the South China Sea was front and centre at recent meetings, held in Kuala Lumpur, between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional players, despite China’s protestations against discussing the issue. Amid criticisms of China’s island-reclamation activities, the US and China continued to trade accusations that the other is militarizing the South China Sea.
Tensions in South China Sea are shaping, and are being shaped by, rising apprehensions about the growth of China’s military prowess and its regional intentions. China has embarked on a substantial modernization of its maritime paramilitary forces as well as naval capabilities to enforce its sovereignty and jurisdiction claims by force, if necessary. At the same time, it is developing capabilities that would put US forces in the region at risk in a conflict, thus potentially denying access to the US Navy in the western Pacific.
TERRITORIES INVOLVED & DISPUTED
The South China Sea comprises a stretch of nearly 1.4 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, spanning west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia, and east of Vietnam. The islands in South China Sea number in hundreds, although the largest and most contentious territories include the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and Scarborough Shoal, to which all of the six major Southeast Asian nations lay various claims. These islands are generally tiny, hundreds of kilometres offshore, and for the most part, completely unable to support self-sustaining economic life. Since the islands have never had an indigenous population, therefore, the issue of historical sovereignty is still a thorny issue to resolve.
The conflicts have, however, focused basically on two groups of islands, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
1. THE PARACEL ISLANDS
The Paracel Islands are located about 200 kilometres offshore from the Chinese coast and are currently being claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
2. THE SPRATLY ISLANDS
These are located over a thousand kilometres south of China. The islands in the Spratly archipelago are being contested by: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Taiwan.
WHO CLAIMS WHAT?
China claims by far the largest portion of territory — an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan. Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation. So, these islands, and the sea that surrounds them, belong to China. The Chinese claim has existed since 1947 and was largely unenforced until the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s and subsequent administrations. When looking at a map of the South China Sea, China’s claim looks like a giant U superimposed on the region; which is why the Chinese claim is often referred to as the U-Shape line.
Vietnam hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century.
The other major claimant in the area is the Philippines, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping. Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) — a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.
4. MALAYSIA & BRUNEI
Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS — the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.
Here a question arises: why are these tiny, uninhabitable, and remote islands important to China and opther Southeast Asian nations? The answer is simple: trade routes, resources and national pride. It leads us to explore the significance of South China Sea.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
1. INTERNATIONAL TRADE ROUTE
The South China Sea is a crucial naval passage for both economic and military purposes. It is one of the most heavily trafficked trade routes in the entire world. As much as 50 percent of global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, which is three times more tanker traffic than the Suez Canal and more than five times that of the Panama Canal, making the waters one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes. More than half of the world’s top ten shipping ports are also located in and around the South China Sea, according to the International Association of Ports and Harbors. Part of the regional tension is generated from the fact that the possession of certain islands, and the buildup of military force on these islands, could easily allow the obstruction of these crucial logistical arteries.
2. NATURAL RESOURCES
Natural resources also play a major role in the struggle. No one doubts that the South China Sea has large deposits of both oil and natural gas that could be commercially extracted for domestic and international use. According to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which offer tremendous economic opportunity for smaller nations like Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and energy security for China’s large, growing economy.
In December 2012, China’s National Energy Administration named the disputed waters as the main offshore site for natural gas production, and a major Chinese energy company has already begun drilling in deep water off the southern coast. Competitive tensions escalated when India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp announced it had partnered with PetroVietnam for developing oil in the disputed waters.
Hostilities resurfaced in May 2014, when Chinese vessels fired water cannons at a Vietnamese flotilla that allegedly approached a large Chinese drilling rig near the Paracel Islands.
WHAT INTERNATIONAL LAW SAYS?
Back in 1982, the international community attempted to codify and better explain certain customary international laws with regard to sovereignty and the seas. The final product of the conference was a treaty called the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, also known as UNCLOS. At present, a total of 167 States are parties to the treaty, including China, the most notable exception being the United States.
In the South China Sea, the six claimants have mixed and matched sovereignty law’s doctrines in order to stitch together the legally convincing claims. Some claimants, like China and Vietnam, have tried to unearth a long history of effective occupation by their national predecessors. Vietnam has also tried to justify its ownership by tracing title back to its colonial occupier, France. In contrast, the Philippines has argued that — whatever the history of Chinese and Vietnamese use — the Spratly Islands were abandoned by the time that Philippine citizen Thomas Cloma stumbled upon them in the 1950s, and that Cloma was able to acquire and then transfer sovereignty over them to the Philippines.
What’s interesting about China’s strategy is that they are currently pursuing a policy that is attempting to conform to both modern and outdated customary international laws; the type of law that they use depends on their particular interests. UNCLOS is the modern standard, while what is termed ‘historic rights’ is a largely outdated form of customary international law that places a special emphasis on any evidence of long-term involvement in a disputed area.
In any event, the claimants have shown little appetite thus far for handing over the territorial issues in the South China Sea dispute to an impartial tribunal, perhaps because no claimant is especially confident in their legal justifications. As a result, the territorial issue seems most likely to be resolved ultimately on the basis of a political settlement rather than a legal ruling.
WHAT DOES THE REST OF THE WORLD SAY?
Although China has tended to favour bilateral negotiations behind closed doors, other countries want international mediation. But even if the Philippines is successful in its attempts to pursue China at a UN tribunal, China would not be obliged to abide by the ruling.
Recent attempts by regional grouping Asean to discuss new ideas for resolving the dispute appear to have left the bloc severely divided.
The US has warned China not to “elbow aside” the countries it is in conflict with over the islands.
WHY WASHINGTON WON’T ACT?
The US pivot to Southeast Asia, coupled with the region’s myriad conflicts, raises concerns about the future of US interests in the region. The Obama administration has not only worked to strengthen ties with ASEAN, but has also tried to forge tighter relations with individual countries like Myanmar, where it has developed a new focus and strategy of engagement. Experts say that the United States faces a dilemma and tough balancing act in the region, as some Asean countries would like it to play a more forceful role to counter what they see as a greater Chinese assertiveness, while others want to see less US involvement. The priority on all sides still is to avoid military conflict.
However, if China and the US get engaged in a game of bluff, then China may have more stomach for the fight. Its tactic is to pick quarrels over seemingly small-bore matters that individually are not worth shedding blood over. Yet collectively, almost imperceptibly, they advance China’s ambition to challenge US “primacy” in the region. China’s president has pressed for a new type of “great power relationship” that would bring Beijing greater respect — and power — in Asia. That does not threaten US primacy globally, but it does challenge it in Asia.