The South China Sea dispute

China’s maritime disputes

Natural resources, are spread across the world, but not uniformly. This is why countries fight with each other to grab the resources through illegal means and even wars. In the past, as well as in the present, there have been many instances of fights between nations for taking possesion of natural resources not falling within their natural boundaries.

Some natural resources like hydrocarbons and natural gas are critical for modern economy which amount to trillions of dollars of global trade. The resource-rich regions become flash points as the surrounding territories lay claim to their wealth either wholly or partly. In this way, territories get embroiled in conflicts by an intense desire of their neighbours who stridently lay claim for ownership rights of the resources.

The South China Sea [SCS] is now the contentious swathe of ocean that has created a lot of bad blood amongst its littoral countries. This includes China, the front runner, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. The South China Sea consists of two island groups namely, Spartly’s and Paracel. These six countries lay overlapping claims on different portions of the South China Sea. The SCS comprises of hundreds of islets. Every emerging nation in the area in now trying to aggressively increase its maritime presence. This has led to a protracted low-intense squabble over the SCS between the rival countries. But, a recent upsurge in their animosity demonstrates the severity of the issue, and its ramifications.

Historical Context of the SCS ..

The fight for SCS has a complex chronology of events in Southeast Asian history. China’s maritime disputes, in particular, are a century-old conflict. It all started with the Sino-Japanese war over the Diaoyu/Senkakus in the East China Sea, dating back to the nineteenth century. In 1937, there was a major flare-up caused by the Japanese invasion of China. Japan invaded the Hainan Islands. Since then Japan claims exclusive rights over several SCS archipelagoes. Not able to accept the humiliation caused by the defeat in the hands of Japan, China returned with a vengeance, and regained the lost possessions from Japan. After this, China, under the leadership of the nationalist Kuomintag Party, demarcated its territorial claims by redrawing the map of the SCS.

The then Chinese government constituted the Land and Water Maps Inspection Committee. The committee, after having several rounds of discussions with the ministry of internal affairs, published the Map of Chinese Islands in the SCS. A 11-dotted line was used on the map to show that the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Spartly Islands belonged to China. Later, in 1953, the two-dotted line portion in the Gulf of Tonkin was deleted. The subsequently published maps in 1953 have shown the nine-dotted lines in the SCS. This historic demarcation drew several contrasting political and legal opinions.

The demarcation by China sent strong signals to the international community in general, and to the littoral countries of SCS, in particular. The Philippines, knew which side their bread was buttered, and it initiated an extensive oil exploration programme in the disputed islands. In the following year, the country’s first oil company, the Philippine Cities Service, launched commercial production which yielded 8.8 million barrels of crude oil. China was, clearly, infuriated by this move of the Philippines.

There was a pressing need for some sort of external intervention to resolve this complex escalating conflict. It was around this time the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] was established in 1982. It is an international tribunal for framing the Law of Sea aimed at minimizing maritime disputes. Its headquarters are located in Hamburg in Germany. The tribunal has clearly defined the rights and responsibilities of the nations in the use of their surrounding waters. After prolonged discussion by international experts, the rights of nations were formulated on the basis of exclusive economic zones and continental shelves.

After a brief spell of relative calm in the SCS, China and Vietnam clashed on the Johnson Reef. This marked China’s first armed retaliation against its perceived foes who had dared to usurp its maritime rights. This was the first most serious confrontation where the Chinese navy sank three Vietnamese ships killing 74 sailors on board. This marked the beginning of Chinese assertiveness in the area. China went a step further. It deployed forces on the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spartlys in January 1987. The Vietnamese were not to be intimidated. As a retaliatory measure, Vietnam occupied several reefs to closely monitor China’s moves.

In what appeared to be a major political move by China, it unilaterally passed a law on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone. Accordingly, it laid claim to the entire SCS. It said it had historical rights to the area dating from the Xia dynasty.

For the second time in a row, China got involved in a military confrontation with the Philippine navy. However, efforts were made by both the countries to retrace their paths and restore normalcy. To maintain friendly relation with the ASEAN members, the duo signed a non-binding code of conduct. It called for confidence building measures between the two countries.

ASEAN and China Code of Conduct…

China has made many efforts towards entering into bilateral agreements to foster enduring ties with its allies. As a result of this effort, after protracted negotiations among the surrounding nations, a “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS” was established. For the first time China entered into a multilateral approach to resolve disputes.

In May 2009, Vietnam and Malaysia filed a joint submission to the UN Commission to extend their continental shelves beyond the standard 200 nautical miles. Quite predictably, China objected to the submission. Asserting its rights aggressively, China claimed SCS to be under its “indisputable sovereignty”.

Alarmed at such belligerence by China, Vietnam strongly wanted to bring SCS issue to an international forum.

On July 23, 2010, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State attended the U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting. The U.S. took a neutral stand on the sovereignty of SCS, but affirmed its interest in the open access to Asia’s maritime commons. Understandably, China did not want any third party intervention in this issue. Vietnam, which was trying to internationalize the issue, stood to gain by the U.S involvement.

Quantitative estimate of SCS’s hidden treasure …

• A massive $5.3 trillion total trade passes through SCS every year.
• 11 billion barrels of oil in the SCS.
• 190 cubic feet of natural gas in the SCS.
• 90% of the Middle Eastern fossil fuel exports are projected to go to Asia by 2035.

Policy Options ….

The escalating tensions between the littoral countries for the ‘Apple of Discord’ will only worsen if adequate measures are not taken. A crisis management system should be put in place.

• Resource Sharing: To mitigate frequent skirmishes, it would be appropriate for claimants to cooperate on the area of collaborative resource development. Each claimant can, then, demand and get its share of the resource. Fisheries, petroleum, and gas should be shared. Additionally, collaboration measures, bilateral patrolling mechanisms should be enforced.

• Building a multilateral framework: Conflict resolution could be largely achieved by arriving at consensus. For this, platforms like the ASEAN are necessary. Despite, the existence of binding code of conduct between China and ASEAN countries, none of them have been adhered to.

• Military-to-Military Communication: Periodic and regular dialogues between military forces of the claimants could ease the risk of conflict escalation. Joint Naval exercises would prove to be successful in this regard.

• International Arbitration: The International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea are presently the two forums in existence for crisis management.

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