Theatre of Maritime Disputes: South China Sea

Nexus of Intricate Geopolitics

The South China Sea has always been in the spotlight. Its prime location has made it “ a gateway of trade and commerce”. Due to its strategic location, the South China sea plays a pivotal role in politics as well as relations of the Indo- Pacific region. Surrounded by Brunei, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, China and Thailand, this region has contributed significantly to the world’s trade.  The main reason behind this aggravating conflict in the region is the presence of vast unregulated fishing grounds and huge reserves of oil which are yet to be discovered. China’s increasing aggression and aggravated territorial claims over the region which overlaps with other nation’s claims. Some of the other disputes include

  • Claims over Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc. by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. The dispute dates back to 1968 since when these nations have been involved in numerous forceful occupations of the islands and their surrounding area. 
  • Disputed ownership by Malaysia and Singapore over Pedra Branca Island;
  • The dispute over ownership by Malaysia and Indonesian of the islands of Sipadan, Sebatik, and Ligitan;
  • Boundary disputes between Malaysia and Vietnam and Indonesia and Vietnam over their offshore demarcation lines;
  • A dispute between Malaysia and Brunei over Limbang and offshore boundaries.
  • The Paracel Islands dispute- it is an archipelago collection of 130 islands and coral reefs which is located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam. Since 1954, tensions have only increased between China and Vietnam over this issue. In 1999, Taiwan jumped into this fight, claiming over the entire archipelago.

China’s Power Play – Twisted Geopolitical Strategy 

China has always presented its most ambitious Belt and Road initiative (BRI) as one of its grand strategies to foster economic growth and development worldwide. What the reality is- it is a ravening tool originated from geopolitics which has encouraged China to expand and have access to exploitation to each and every prominent resource of the world.  BRI covers Africa, Central Eurasian Parts, Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. China is trying to meet its economic, raw material and energy supply while binding countries in the trap of Debt. China’s Debt Diplomacy is so alluring that hardly any country can resist. Countries are gradually losing control of their sovereignty without even realising that. 

China seems to be inspired by the classical geopolitical theories especially by Mackinder and Mahan who emphasised on the strategic location of Eurasian Heartland (largely consisted of Russia, the Himalayan region and China) and capturing of strategic sea routes. It was assumed that whosoever controls any one of these will control the world. China, by combining both (Heartland + sea routes) is trying to capture all major areas of economic significance. China is trying to develop land as well as sea trade routes that will serve as a crucial link to interconnect all the places. China’s strange obsession with the South

PLA Navy Drill with ASEAN countries/ Image source: China Daily

China Sea, the breaching of sovereignty and the building of artificial islands is a result of its perceived strategy originating from the Mahanian influence. 

The combination of Mackinder and Mahan’s strategy provides a credible roadmap for China’s aggressive geopolitical strategy. China’s assertive influence over south-east Asia is a testimony of it. 

Historical Glimpse of the Fight 

Keeping in mind the strategic location of these islands, there are multi claimants fighting for their occupancy, some have even presented their records of history to provide validity to their claims. 

During the first half of the 20th Century, the area remained quiet-peaceful, witnessing no agitation or aggression over any islands as the countries were consumed in colonising the other parts of the world. 

At the end of World War II, still, no claimant occupied any island in the entire South China Sea. In 1946, however, China made its first appearance in some parts of Spratlys island and after some time in parts of Woody and Paracel Islands meanwhile, the French and Vietnam established themselves on nearby Pattle Island. During the Chinese Civil war, these islands were again left abandoned.  However, the next five decades saw the upsurge of conflicting claims and interests in the area. By 1956, China and Taiwan marked their presence in several islands. Since oil began to show up in the islands, the number of countries showing interest over it also increased. The Philippines was first among them. China followed too with its strategically coordinated strategy of invasion i.e. Nine-Dash line. This line is supposed to be the demarcation line encircling a vague stretch of ocean which China claims to be its own.  In a clash that happened between North and South Vietnam and China, few people died followed by the occupation of remaining unoccupied land by S-N Vietnam. 

By 1988, after fighting various small battles, China successfully occupied Spratly island as well as the Paracel Islands. After some time, Beijing also occupied Johnson Reef. Tensions escalated in 1995 after Beijing built bunkers above Mischief Reef in the wake of a Philippine oil concession.

Image source: Bangkok Post

China vs ASEAN – Diplomatic War   

1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) administers international agreements that clarify the rights of countries to the world’s oceans. It also demarcates stretches of waters called exclusive economic zones where coastal states are given the right to exclusively tap fishery and fuel resources.

The USA which was neutral earlier has now aligned its stance with 2016 verdict of the Tribunal constituted under United Nations Convention on the law of the Seas UNCLOS in which “Nine Dash Line” was declared invalid and as there was no significant proof of China’s occupation over the disputed territories in the past and therefore it has no legal basis to claim ownership on behalf of what happened in the past. Tribunal also noticed that “China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by 

(a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, 

(b) constructing artificial islands and

(c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. 

The Tribunal also held that fishermen from the Philippines (like those from China) had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access. The Tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.

US Navy personnel raise their flag during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and US Navy dubbed Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT 2014)/ Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

China, in revert, has denied all the accusations with President Xinping himself claiming that China has historic claims over the disputed area and the verdict itself is invalid and non-binding.

In the press conference for the ASEAN 2020 summit, which was held via video conferencing, ASEAN Leaders have emphasised that the 1982 UNCLOS treaty should be considered as the basis of rights of sovereignty and land occupation in the South China Sea region. 

The ASEAN statement said: “We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.”

Vietnam as the leader among the SouthEast Asian Nations issued this statement. China has vehemently increased aggressiveness to reinforce its claim through Nine dash lines which breach the sovereignty of several south-east nations.  

In reality, ASEAN members have failed to yield substantial progress over a Code of Conduct (COC) for regulating actions in the South China Sea. A single draft of the COC was first put forth in 2018.  The draft exposes the lack of consensus among ASEAN countries. The code of conduct reflects a narrow understanding of the South China sea conflict focusing on their individual national interest. They have failed to see the bigger picture that is behind it. 

In April this year, Vietnam accused China of attacking their fishing boats, with a few incidents supported by videos posted online. Beijing has also built artificial islands totally equipped with military facilities which are claimed in part by Vietnam. The creation of two new municipal districts to administer the Spratly and neighbouring Paracel Islands has only increased the tensions between the two. 

China is trying to fulfil its ambitious project while exerting its economic supremacy. Beijing has taken advantage of ASEAN’s ruptured unity and occupied a large extent of land. This supremacy has raised a question on the efficiency of the regional institution as well. Many countries have already initiated looking for an alternative instead of relying on the institution itself. The USA has emerged as a ray of hope for them. 

The USA has also jumped in the fray of military race in the area and marked its naval presence including freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in 2018. The Navy has conducted 23 FONOPs in the South China Sea since 2015, according to Ltjg Rachel McMarr. Although it has not yet ratified the UNCLOS treaty instead treats it as a customary international law which allows military vessels to conduct exercises in the sea. 

The exchange of diplomatic notes between the nations involved in the conflict so as to make their stance clear upon the application of UNCLOS in the region. The militarisation of the area will only increase the tension in the area without actually solving the issue. Using the USA as a proxy state in the region like the South China sea will not only make it a theatre of warfare but also will give access to resources to two superpowers fighting for supremacy.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Shalini Singh

Shalini Singh is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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