“Deck, Dock, Dependence”: Building Security in South China Sea
By ANANT MISHRA [Former Youth Representative to United Nations]
New Delhi: The South China Sea (SCS) comprises of an area from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan, covering almost 3,500,000 square kilometres. Despite being a region of semi enclosed sea, the SCS is one of the most important trade route in the world. Additional researches have indicated that this area is also rich in vast oil and natural resource.
With immense geopolitical and economical importance, this South China Sea has witnessed a long line of territorial disputes, backdoor diplomacy even bloodshed. Nations such as Brunei, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines have made their share of territorial claims raising a question of poor safety and security in the region, and creating a military and political situation. Hence the region is in an absolute need for creating a new talk among nations to bring back safety and security in the region.
To understand the issue better, let us first understand some terms –
“A territorial dispute is defined as disagreement between two or more nations over the possession of a land or a property claimed by either of nations as theirs and forcibly occupying the land”.
Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
EEZ is an acronym for Exclusive Economic Zone established in a state stretching to vast lands, almost 200 miles or more from the state. In the EEZ, the State has the right to setup scientific instruments, conduct researchers for the betterment of marine life preservation. The State also has the right to control over natural resources and is free to utilize and source found within EEZ.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
“The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 is one of the international organizations formed in an effort to maintain peace and governance on water. This treaty comprises a number of agenda’s on navigational rights, economic rights, and pollution of the seas, conservation of marine life, scientific exploration along with piracy, and many more.”
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
ASEAN was established on 8th August 1967, in an effort to create a more understanding among South East nations. ASEAN members are as follows Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Confidence Building Measures
These are a set of measures designed specifically to decrease tensions among nations. They are further classified into two types; one is the Military Confidence Building Measures and second is Political Confidence Building Measures.
Behind the Scenes
Before we begin with what? How? And When? Let us first understand the geographical topology of the area. The dispute surrounds on two main Archipelagos: the Parcel Archipelago comprises an interconnected set of 15 islands, and the Spratly Archipelago, which has 45 islands. The Parcel islands are situated on the northern sea, while island Spratly are located to the South. The nations bordering the disputed South China Sea are Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Viet Nam. All other nations except Indonesia and Singapore made territorial claims.
Now talking about the dispute, there are several reasons. Let’s categorize it in economic, legal and strategic for better understanding.
Undoubtedly the SCS is rich in oil and gas. Chinese analysts argue that the overall presence of oil and gas in the region covers almost 80% oil reserve in Saudi Arabia. However Malaysian scientists estimate million barrels at least in the region. However the United States argues that the region does not have “estimated” amount of resources. Moreover there haven’t been much surveys, but the ones who were able to do it, have fallen into a contest of numbers. Nonetheless the estimated results have been intriguing for many nations.
Regular access to the fish stocks have been decreasing throughout the world but here fish stock is estimated to be around tons. The University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center estimates the fish tanks to 5 million tons. Now talking about the South Asian nations, fishing is a part and parcel of life. Now the fishing stock is decreasing, the neighbouring nations are putting excess value to the area which is supposed to have more large fish stocks. Once the lives of fishermen are threatened, nations pressure each other with their navies and cost guards, creating a zone of insecurity and territorial tensions. There have been numerous armed conflicts between China and Viet Nam in 1974 and 1988.
United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea was created for this particular reason, to sort out water disputes among nations, but even it has limits. It sees a difference between Rocks, Coral Reefs and Islands. While islands comprise Exclusive Economic Zone, stretching around 200 miles, rocks and reefs will not generate EEZ. As there are many reefs and cliffs in the region, this has created an issue. China for example, questioned the existence of UNCLOS openly criticised it from time to time as China didn’t feel benefited with its formation. Also, it is not easy to provide maritime zones to the islands. If an island is very close to the shore, then it is impossible to provide a definitive zone. Considering such cases, Viet Nam and the Philippines will be the ones more benefitted. Meanwhile not many nations are happy to see UNCLOS as an integral part of the solution.
The South China Sea is very important naval trade route, that connects the Pacific with the Indian Ocean along with Middle East. “It has been evaluated that over half of the world’s shipment is carried through this route.” With the presence of additional resources, adds more value to this route. Hence with this objective, the European Union, the US encourages free travel in the SCS. Now let us say if this trade route gets an authority of China, then any nation travelling through this region will lose its economic benefits. On the other hand China has prepared its naval power such as aircraft carriers and strong navy to protect its cargo and the trade in the region. Thus actions like these tend to increase the tensions in the region and create a negative effect on confidence and security building.
Military Confidence Building Measures
The objective of Military CBM is to establish a sense of good trust among the neighbouring nations and understand each other military capability. Hence due this Military CBM’s many navies have been successful in preventing skirmishers and unauthorised breach in the region. Nations with this practice inform each other about military manoeuvres and share data about each other enemies. Besides exchanging information, nations can also use this opportunity to monitor each other development methods. These methods include involving other nations as guests to their military drills, combined strategic operations training centres for joint military practices or using an unmanned UAV for live operation coverage. Going back in the history, the Treaty on Open Skies was signed between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members and Russia which gave each other permission to host or plan an unmanned UAV overwatch on a pre discussed basis, strategies like this will prove a great confidence builder among nations. Then the nations can resolve an issue of the disputed area without any military use or by limiting the number of troops in the area, limiting military drills and establishing demilitarised zones in the area. It is also important to understand that Military CBM’s acts very positively in reducing an armed conflict. Hence these measures can be taken in any region. Hence if any region let’s say, fears the Chinese military presence, then a Military CBM with China will prove successful.
Political Confidence Building Measures
Political Confidence Building Mechanisms clearly means having bilateral and multilateral relations among neighbouring nations. By such means nations tends to have a true insight over other nations public and governing policies. Besides having talks, nations can establish hotline and use this as a medium to communicate to each other in times of crisis. With a direct line of communication, nations would definitely understand each other state of minds and intentional approaches. Nations would then make small steps in efforts in building confidence. Other parties too can become a part of their concession in building positive steps. This process is called Gradual Reduction in Tension (GRIT). However it is equally important to understand that during this process no nation should show disadvantage towards each other. For example a joint commission for continental shelves were issued from the nations Viet Nam and Malaysia however the same was opposed by Philippines and China. Nations such as Viet Nam, China and Philippines were involved in a joint strategic volcanic research in the SCS, thus developing political relations among the three.
Other Organizations and Countries involved :
People’s Republic of China has been frequently arguing on the status of the two disputed islands and allegedly claims Spratly and Parcel Islands to be a part of China. China first made an official claim over the island in 1948 using the three dashed lines. Arguing on the status of the two islands, China declared the claims of Viet Nam and Philippines illegal. As China declared the claims illegal, it too declared the existence of UNCLOS “US eye on China”. China is comfortable to discuss the issue with other nations rather than third party organization presence. China has also increased its military presence in the region and not long ago it was involved in military standoffs with Viet Nam and Philippines. Instead China dismisses the agenda’s of UNCLOS and claims that the code of conduct signed with the ASEAN should be the integral part of the solution for SCS instead of UNCLOS. China has ratified UNCLOS.
Viet Nam has been claiming on the islands right after the end of Viet Nam war. In 1988 Viet Nam has seen combat with China which took dozens of Vietnamese lives. Viet Nam conducted many bilateral talks with China along with the agreement to work with Code of Conduct. Viet Nam has been actively involved in military drills with United States. Viet Nam, China and the Philippines conducted a series of seismic surveys in the region from 2005 to 2008 under the Tripartite Agreement for the Joint Marine Seismic in the Agreement Area in within the agreement of South China Sea.
The Philippines has been claiming on the Spratly Island since 1978. Since then they have questioned the existence of nine dashed lines and claimed it a clear violation of UNCLOS, which the Philippines have ratified. In 1995, Chinese military captured numerous Philippine military installations that were positioned inside the EEZ of the Philippines. In 2013, the Philippines took China to a UN Tribunal under the UNCLOS. Not to forget, the United States is a major ally of Philippines. In 2012, the Philippines seized Chinese vessels in the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
ASEAN is one of the few organizations trying to resolve this conflict. In 2002, the ASEAN members and China agreed to form a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which initiated a series of dialogue between the nations. In 2011, along with the members of ASEAN, the nations agreed to add more guidelines in the code of conduct. ASEAN wants to resolve the issue peacefully.
United States of America
The US shares no territorial boundaries with the SCS. Nonetheless it is very closely watching the issue as it doesn’t want Chinese expansion in the region. However the US is against any unilateral decision made on the issue. It is also important to understand that while US is up for an international law in the disputed area, it has still not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea. US, in the past have conducted many military drills with china and it has also announced deployment of more ships in the Pacific to counter the Chinese. Overall, the US has a defence treaty with Philippines.
European Union (EU)
No EU nation share ant territory what so ever with the SCS. However, EU sees this region as a profit for economic role and a major area where European nations can invest in. Recently, The EU released a list of guidelines on EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in the region of East Asia, in which it openly promotes the navigation of free trade. The EU also favours UNCLOS for a peaceful solution. The EU in its book for East Asia studies mentions the importance as “in relation to consensual, international law based settlement of maritime border issues, and to sustainable management of resources and maritime security cooperation in sea areas with shared sovereignty or disputed claims.’’
Malaysia has made numerous claims in the disputed regions of SCS. Malaysia claims the region within the EEZ along with some islands within Spratlys. Viet Nam and Malaysia sent a joint report on their claims to the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelves, an international commission that monitors continental shelves of nations, to extend their continental shelves, which was met with suppression from China and Philippines.
Brunei has made claims on the regions that lie within its Exclusive Economic Zone. A member of ASEAN, Brunei has also signed the Code of Conduct and agrees with the new established Guidelines. Brunei wants this issue to be resolved peacefully.
Japan has claimed on both the islands as per the San Francisco Treaty. Japan has a very strong bilateral defence treaty with the US and it will support the nations allied with the US.
Republic of Korea
Republic of Korea has no claims in the region. Also, it is a very strong ally of the US; however historical issues have kept ROK distant from Japan. Meanwhile ROK also has good relation with China hence; it will not take a stance on the nation in the SCS issue. South Korea has recently developed defence cooperation with the Philippines.
Previous Attempts to solve the Issue
ASEAN has been trying to resolve the issue. ASEAN is an organization that is responsible for initiating the code of conduct along with other nations on the disputed region. The members of ASEAN along with China have agreed their commitment to UNCLOS along with freedom to navigate in the disputed area. The parties have ensured each other that no force will be used and inhabiting of islands will be restrained. The section 5(A) of the article clearly mentions how the nations are involved together to resolve the issue peacefully. Peaceful solutions is a must hence parties are told to aware people about any joint military practice in the region and asked not to provoke each other during these trainings. These parties are also informed about the importance of conservation of marinal life and formation of joint task force for combating transnational crimes. All these activities could easily make a path for creating goof confidence among the nations. Overall, the code of conduct clearly explains the importance of dialogues for better understanding during disputes. However the code looks to be more promising but the parties involved are taking too much time to follow it, as these guidelines were just released in 2011, almost 9 years later than the formation.
It has been well understood now that activities performed through confidence building affects more than the dialogues during disputes. Very little development has been made through Code of Conduct and the Guidelines, meanwhile the Tripartite Agreement has proved to be a huge success in the region. Hence the first step should be confidence building and security in the region. Only through such measures nations can resolve their disputes.
The code of conduct also includes cooperation among nations through scientific research. South China is rich because of its oil reserves. Hence nations involving in the disputes can establish a joint research committee to explore more areas as many parts are yet to be discovered. Hence, these research activities could establish more friendly ties among the nations and setup more international ties in the region.
Joint military exercises are another worrying issue for the nations. Whenever US conducts a military drill with a nation, China responds with its own military drills in the region. Hence patterns like these create tensions in the region. To reduce the level of tension, the US and China could refrain themselves in conducting drills in the region. ASEAN could be given the task to conduct joint military drills. In an effort to reduce the tension with China, the nation could be asked to view the drills as an observer.