South China Sea is one of the most contentious global issues talked about in the international domain. The south china sea dispute involves 6 countries, laying overlapping claims to the parts of the south china sea. The countries involved in the dispute are: China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. The major question that comes out of this issue is who exercises legitimate ownership of 250 islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars. The major bone of contention in this maritime dispute is Spratly islands and Parcel islands. Earlier, the claims made by countries involved were made on the basis of historical evidence of discovering and using these islands, but in the later years these countries started to make arguments supporting their claims and protecting their sovereignty under the umbrella of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) stated under The United Nations Convention of the law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Figure1: The nine-dash line
China claims to own a big chunk of the south china sea (almost all of it), covering all the major islands with exclusive access to natural resources, and has been building man-made islands in the area to use them as Chinese Military Bases in the disputed waters. China is blocking the access of other countries to the islands which are not within China’s EEZ, because China believes that they were the first country to discover, find and exploit the natural resources, and to exercise sovereignty over the south china sea”. PRC states that their activities in the south china sea date back to the second century. “The South china sea is a semi-enclosed sea of approximately 1.4 million square miles” (Roberts,2015). Chinese government, to solidify their claims drew a U-shaped nine-dash line on its maps, an ambiguous demarcation line marking the area that PRC believes belongs to them exclusively on the basis of historical records. The nine-dash line encapsulates areas way beyond China’s EEZ and violates the sovereignty of other claimants like, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. China’s attitude towards the south china sea is the major variable leading to rising tensions in the area (see Figure 1).
II. Historical claims
Solving disputes for regional co-operation in the south china sea: a Chinese perspective mentions that:
“Chinese scholars have come to an agreement that china was the first country to discover the south china sea. For example, they believe the records show that tropical sea produce such as pearl carrying shellfish, turtles and hawksbill turtles had been submitted to the imperial court since the Xia dynasty” (Wu,2013). It is said that, the communication between china and other civilisations was limited at that time, there is no way that this produce could have been imported from other states, implying that this could only come from south china sea. It is also said that; south china sea was controlled by Chinese navy during the northern song dynasty (Wu,2013). Ancient Chinese literature has also signalled at pre-existing knowledge of south china sea. “in the funeral eulogy of Emperor Wu, Xie wrote verses on how naval fleets patrolled the south china sea (960-1127 AD). A textbook indication of Chinese fishery activities could be a road map, a navigation guide complied by Hainan fishermen based on experience accumulated over many generations completed no later than the eighteenth century. The book also provides detailed narratives on direction and distance of navigational routes to parts of Spratly and Parcel islands (Wu,2013)”. Also, Cairo declaration and Potsdam declaration confirm that The United States agreed that Japan must return the territory it has seized from china. Along with that, books, maps published in the united states recognize Spratly islands as a part of Chinese territory (Wu,2013). Chinese claims to the south china sea are solely based on historical evidence. Activities like “fishing expeditions, exploitation of resources, naval patrol can be traced back to 14th century” (Wu,2013). In the year 1914, Chinese cartographers incorporated the nine-dash line within their maps, and they made it official in 1947. (Wu,2013)
Philippines submitted its claims to the parts of the south china sea to the United Nations in 1946. Philippine did not get involved until 1956 when Filipino explorer by the name of Tomas Cloma found Kalayaan islands. Vietnam also has a bunch of historical claims to spratly islands. Their claims lay within their EEZ according to UNCLOS. (Wu,2013)
“Vietnam also claims to have a history with the Spratly islands dating back to the 16th century. In 1956 south Vietnam claimed that the parcel islands had become Vietnamese when Vietnam was unified with by Nguyen dynasty in 1802, and Spratly had been incorporated by French into Cochin China in 1929. South Vietnam also claimed right of succession for the entire south china sea from French colonialists as their rightful heirs.”
(Wu,2013). Vietnam did not want to have a problematic relationship with China, so in order to remain peaceful with china, Prime minister Pham Van Dong accepted china’s sovereignty over parcel and spratly islands. When provisional revolutionary government of republic of south Vietnam and democratic republic of Vietnam merged on July 2,1976, it gave Vietnam the confidence to stand up to China. Vietnam renounced its previous acknowledgement of Chinese sovereignty. Encouraged by UNCLOS, Vietnam declared its exclusive economic and zone and included parcel and spratly islands within their EEZ. (Hong,2013)
III. Significance of the south china sea.
The reason why all the nation states want a piece of south china sea is because what is under it and inside it, i.e., enormous amount of natural resources and natural gas. More than 3000 acres of land has been created. It is estimated to have at least 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas which implies that is several decades worth energy.
Figure 2: represents statistic around trade value and energy resources in south china sea
It serves as a massive shipping passage worth 5.3 trillion dollars’ worth of trade. As per Robert D. Kaplan’s Asia’s Caldron: The south china sea and the end of a stable Asia pacific:
“The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans—the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca start from the Indian ocean, en route to east Asia through the south china sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal; and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal” (Kaplan,2015)
It has estimated 125 billion barrels of oil and has gained the reputation for becoming the second Persian Gulf. If these projections hold true, then south china sea provides an excellent solution to Malacca strait dilemma. Along with that south china sea offers excellent military positioning. Islands in the south china sea are currently being used by china as naval bases. Also, economic value of fish stocks accounts for one-tenth of the whole world, which represents a billion-dollar industry. Over 33 percent of animal protein consumed in the claimant states comes from the fisheries in the disputed waters which implies that conflict in this area is endangering food security in the entire region.
China is Asia’s largest country in terms of energy production today. Chinese extraction of oil touches 700000 barrels per day, making up fifteen percent of china’s total oil production. Chinese companies have profited phenomenally and have developed oil and gas resources at an exponential pace. Vietnam’s Oil company, Petro-Vietnam has also produced millions of tons of oil from fields in south china sea and was able to secure oil and gas exploration contracts from foreign companies. (Wu,2013)
IV. Escalation of Tension in the region
Conflict in south china sea has occurred intermittently. There were tensions in the early 1990’s, but de-escalated in early 2000’s because china wanted to remain peaceful. Conflict was on the rise again in the year 2009, when Philippines openly protested against china’s growing assertiveness in the region, when PRC submitted its claim in the south china to The United Nations. Ever since, tensions have not decreased. Vietnam also has had their share of confrontations with China on the matter of sovereignty over Spratly Islands. “On 26 May 2011, two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels cut off the exploration cables of a Vietnamese oil survey ship searching for oil and gas deposits within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone” (Wu,2013) To bring this issue to light, Vietnam released videos of the Chinese vessel violating Vietnam’s sovereignty. To this, Chinese government responded by saying that it was conducting routine marine enforcement activities in the area and china has not only done this once, but twice in the same year.
In may 2013, china sent several ships to Ayungin shoal, which is 105 nautical miles away from Philippines EEZ implying it was within Philippines exclusive economic zone. Philippines had 8 soldiers stationed there. Chinese sealed off Philippines access to Ayungin Shoal with fishing boats, surveillance ships and navy destroyers. Chinese created a blockade so that Filipinos could not receive shipments of food and supplies.
In the year 2016, Manila took Beijing to Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) over unresolved issue of sovereignty over the territory in the south china sea. In July 2016, the international tribunal in the Hague reached the verdict that China’s historical evidence to the disputed waters is baseless. PCA also made clear that china is not entitled to the islands falling within Philippines EEZ, and that china had violated the international law of the sea (UNCLOS) by building artificial islands. Chinese government discarded the ruling by asserting that PCA has no business in territorial disputes, and called the law (UNCLOS) itself biased for being formulated under western influences and not considering its historical claims. Despite of the court’s ruling and build-up of tensions in the region, china announced its plans of building nuclear reactors within spratly islands to boost commercial development of the area. China also plans on declaring an air identification zone over the south china sea, so that they can gain exclusive control over the airspace as well. The modernization of Chinese navy and better infrastructure than the other claimants have allowed china to dominate the south china sea. PRC has armed troops positioned are all over the south china sea. Other claimants have also contributed towards the growing conflict in the region. Along with china, Vietnam is also militarizing and building man-made islands in the south china sea and has already tested mobile rocket launchers in mischief reef. (Hong,2013)
China is a major trade partner to all the countries laying claims to the south china sea and a powerful nuclear armed neighbour. Chinese Military is second largest in the world after The United States of America. None of the Claimant countries can take on china alone, because if they do, consequences would be catastrophic. So, countries like Philippines and Vietnam rely on their allied partner, The United States to come to their aid if a warlike confrontation takes place.
V. Role of The United States of America in the dispute.
When U.S Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo visited Philippines following the trump campaign, he mentioned that in the event of any armed attack on Philippines in the south china sea, U.S would back Philippines based on their mutual defence treaty. China released a statement of response mentioning that china is working hard to protect peace and stability in the region and if The United States wants to consider peace as a third part to the issue, it should stay out of it. China is becoming increasingly aggressive in the south china sea, and The United States is seen as a major counter force to China. Although, The United States has expressed a multiple times that they do not want to engage in territorial disputes of ASEAN as it does not serve their national interests. But, it is interested in “freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law of the sea, and has also promised that it will not look the other way if the international law is breached. It will not tolerate China’s use of force to assert their claims” (Roberts,2015).
VI. Why does china want complete control of the south china sea?
China is among the world’s greatest power. Chinese ambitions of the south china sea go far beyond picking a fight with its neighbouring states. China has a vision of creating global dominance and south china sea is a part of that plan. China wants to be independent in terms of procuring energy resources, producing oil and wishes to re-route global trade. China has launched one of the most ambitious projects in modern history to re-route global trade. This plan uses a network of trade routes spread across ancient silk route. Ancient silk route is a network across Europe, the middle east and China dating back to 200BC. It spread over 3 continents and touches over 62% of the world’s population. China uses a network of economic belt, which stretches through Central Asia and Europe and maritime belt which use the south china sea. Over 60 countries have signed agreements with china to be a part of the belt road initiative. Maritime Silk route uses a chain of sea ports from south china sea to Africa directing trade to and from China. This Initiative uses Oil refineries, Power Plants, Fiber Optic networks all designed to make it easier for the world to trade with china. The infrastructure china has built along the economic and maritime belt has opened trade corridors for china worth billions of dollars. South china sea is very important for china to become the next superpower.
Another reason behind china’s growing assertiveness can be global humiliation and fear of losing its dominance in the world.
All the countries involved should engage in self-restraint, open mindedness to understand each other’s position and should share values of peace and stability in the region. Territorial disputes should be solved among nation states directly affected because of the conflict. Third party engagement has fueled Chinese anger and hostility. China does not seem to easily give up its claims, so for the meanwhile, China should seek diplomatic ways through multilateral negotiations to solve this dispute and should stop threatening the rest of the claimants. If these ASEAN countries come together and look past their differences, Asia can become way stronger than it is. They could all share military support and intelligence services, instead of seeking protection from The United States they can seek the same from China. Claimant countries should devise a joint corporation plan to encourage mutual trust, decrease use of force in the disputed region and increase economic co-operation. China should Co-operate and address concerns of the other countries peacefully.
1. Roberts, H. (2015). Responses to sovereign disputes in the south china sea. International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, 30(1), 199-212.
2. Zhao Hong (2013) The south china sea dispute-china, Asian Affairs, 44:1, 27-43, DOI: 10.1080/03068374.2012.760785
3. Wu, S. (2013). Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea: A Chinese Perspective (Chandos Asian Studies Series). Elsevier Science.
4. Kaplan, R.D. (2015). Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.Newyork: Random House USA.
5) Photo of map of 9 dash line, The south china sea, http://www.southchinasea.org/maps/territorial-claims-maps/
6) Photo of statistic of trade value and numerical value of energy resources, The Council on foreign relations., https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/territorial-disputes-south-china-sea