BY DR SANU KAINIKARA MARCH 1, 2016 / EURASIAREVIEW.COM
While the world has been busy and preoccupied with the conflict in the Middle-East, the refugee problem that it has spawned, finding a solution to the intransigent Syrian issue and coming to terms with the rise and rise of militant Islam, the South China Sea has percolated to becoming an issue that could have more global repercussions than any of those challenges.
The increasing tension between the US and China in the South China Sea has not received the attention that it deserves.
The South China Sea is a strategic sub-region of the Indo-Pacific and a critical economic corridor, which caters for the passage of $5 trillion in annual trade. It is bordered by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam—all of whom have territorial and/or economic claims on it, making it crucially significant to geo-political developments. The major islands and reef formations are the Spratly, Paracel, Pratas, Natuna islands and the Scarborough Reef. The South China Sea is reported to hold as yet untapped but substantial reserves of oil and gas. Further, the Asian economic growth has increased commercial shipping traffic in the region, underlining the criticality of the South China Sea to future growth and stability.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), conducted in 1982 and signed in 1994, regulates the maritime economic rights of nations broadly based on territorial waters and continental baselines. Although the UNCLOS has been ratified by all coastal nations surrounding the South China Sea, legal and territorial disputes persist, especially around the Spratly and Paracel islands and the Scarborough Reef. Other than for Singapore and Brunei, all the other nations have conflicting and overlapping claims over the Spratly islands chain. China and Vietnam have clashed twice, in 1974 and 1988 over the Paracel islands, which is occupied by China. The Scarborough Reef—around 160 kilometres from the Philippines and 800 kilometres from China—is claimed by Taiwan, China and the Philippines.
“China is today adopting the strategy of patience—continuing to build and militarise the South China Sea islands while denying any wrong doing.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea based on what is referred to as the ‘nine-dash-line’ map, first published in 1947 by the Chinese Ministry of the Interior, which draws its maritime borders stretching hundreds of miles south and east from Hainan, the southernmost province of the mainland. China claims that the nine-dash-line map is based on historical evidence and followed up in 1958 with a Declaration of China’s Territorial Sea that claimed Chinese sovereignty over almost all the islands in the region. Other nations dispute these ‘historical’ claims and the UNCLOS also does not ratify them. For example, Vietnam states that China had no claim over the Paracel islands before 1940 and also that the islands were ruled by Vietnam as far back as the 17th century, declaring that it has documents to prove this.
China’s Claims and the Regional Fallout
In 2014, Chinese maps showed the nine-dash-line covering all the islands in the South China Sea as well as Taiwan. At the same time, in May 2014, China started drilling operations near Paracel islands, at a spot about 129 nautical miles for Vietnam, eliciting strong protest from that country. Vietnam send its coastguard ships to ward off the oil rig and in the ensuing melee a Vietnamese fishing vessel was sunk. This resulted in large-scale anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, which may have been a contributory factor that ultimately led to the Chinese withdrawing the drilling rig. Although the issue was contained, it started a national debate in Vietnam regarding the nation’s political and economic dependence on China. The 2014 stand-off had the effect of accelerating a long-term, but till then nascent, Vietnamese effort to improve relations with the US and other regional as well as international powers in the Western world.
On 19 January 2016, China once again moved the same oil rig into disputed waters with Vietnam. This move coincided with the Vietnamese Party Conference being conducted to elect the supreme leader for the next five years. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry website states that the rig is in Vietnamese waters while China denies this claim stating that it is operating in its own waters. The newly elected Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, is seen as pro-Chinese and relatively conservative. Domestic opinion regarding Chinese activities in disputed maritime territories is highly nationalistic and therefore Trong will have to demonstrate his intentions to maintain the nation’s territorial integrity. Balancing inherent Communist sympathy with the harsh reality of China’s aggressive and expansionist stance in the South China Sea will be difficult in the long-term. The new leadership will have to craft at least a medium term strategy to counter Chinese moves.
The Philippines has lodged a formal legal case with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 to settle its dispute with China in the South China Sea, which China sees as an international embarrassment. Even so, China is unlikely to submit to international arbitration. In more recent times the islands have moved to being the flashpoints in regional politics. In April 2015, satellite images showed that China had started to build a runway on reclaimed land in the Spratly islands. This is not something new, since in the past other regional nations have also indulged in reclamation around the islands. However, it is the scale of Chinese reclamation activities that has alarmed the smaller nations. China has so far built seven artificial islands in the disputed island chains, mainly in the Spratlys. In the past 18 months alone it has reclaimed 3000 acres in comparison to a mere 215 acres that have been reclaimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam combined in the past 40 years. All the Chinese artificial islands have helipads and there is one 3000 metre runway on Fiery Cross Reef, while another is under construction in Subi Reef. In addition, Mischief Reef has two military facilities and also hosts a naval base. This is a serious effort at creating the infrastructure to control the South China Sea.
Several issues in the South China Sea however lie in the grey zones of legality. For instance, only islands that can sustain human habitation are entitled to the legal rights mentioned in UNCLOS beyond a 500-meter safety zone. However, there is vagueness in the Law of the Sea in defining whether the islands are habitable or not. There is also no clear directives regarding the relationship between the 200 kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and international military activities in that zone. Both China and India consider any external military activity in their EEZs to be illegal. Should either of the nations opt to enforce this self-proclaimed writ, it could lead to serious confrontations.
China – Patience and Denial as Security Strategies
As the regional and international opinions about Chinese actions have started to become more vociferous, China has increasingly emphasised its official claim that ‘the South China Sea has belonged to China since ancient times’. China now claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over 90 per cent of South China Sea and refuses to discuss the matter in multi-national forums or attend any judicial proceedings. In October 2015, the US sailed a guided-missile destroyer 12 nautical miles from one of the new islands being militarised, asserting its freedom of navigation in the region. China was prompt to respond by issuing a statement warning the US ‘not to make trouble out of nothing’. Read more…