Resolving South China Sea issue can bring peace & prosperity
By ANANT MISHRA [Former Youth Representative to United Nations]
New Delhi: The South China Sea is a body of water stretching from the Malacca Straits to Taiwan, neighbouring the coasts of eight sovereign states: the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. The Sea is extremely important, both globally and regionally: it is one of the world’s busiest sea-lanes, it has rich fishing grounds, and it is widely believed to contain vast quantities of oil and gas. The Sea is crowded by a number of small islands, most of them uninhabited; the two major island groups being the Spratly and Parcel Islands. The Sea also hosts large reefs, like the Scarborough Shoal, and unique maritime wildlife. Seven Asian nations have been in dispute over the South Chinese Sea for a long time now, because the zones claimed by almost all countries overlap those of others. Most of the Islands and reefs in the South Chinese Sea have been occupied by Naval or Coast Guard forces, and an obvious deadlock situation has been known for a couple of decades now. The growing importance of Asia in the world has blown new life into the dispute. Terms like “The Rise of Asia” and “Asia’s Century” show the prominence given to the continent on the world theatre, and this idea has given the Asian states more confidence when acting in international matters.
Asia has been a relatively calm region in the world, focused on peace and growth. Apart from the Vietnam and Korea wars - which can be explained in light of the Cold War - Asian countries have respected each other’s sovereignty without any particular threats to peace in the region. Asia’s rise has been greatly helped by the creation of the ASEAN in 1961 and of the APEC in 1989, as both organisations have fostered regional cooperation in the economic and political spheres. Recently, however, the South China Sea dispute has newly become a hot topic. China, by far the biggest player in the region and in the dispute, has changed its tactic concerning maritime disputes, in both the East and South Chinese seas, from a “good neighbour policy” to a more assertive stance. Recent clashes between Vietnam and China - who had previously fought a war over the control of the Parcel Islands in 1974 - involve the ramming of boats, cutting of seismic cables designed for detecting oil and gas reserves, and in some cases even gunfire.6 The Chinese military also had clashes with the Philippines in the Spratly Islands, in which it has started using a “cabbage” tactic - characterised by the surrounding of territorial waters, reefs and islands with layers of Navy, coast guard and anglers ships.
The South China Sea is becoming more and more militarised, and we can expect incidents between competing countries only to become more frequent throughout the region, increasing the risk of escalation.
Despite the dispute’s regional setting and origin, it has nevertheless drawn the attention of many other countries, both within the region and worldwide: Japan, India, the U.S.A, Russia and other States have become, both indirectly and directly involved, further complicating the already sensitive situation.
The Chinese claim on the South Chinese Sea has, in many articles and books, been aptly depicted with an elegant ‘U’ shape on the map. China’s claims on the South China Sea are sometimes hard to comprehend, especially when looking at the huge scope of the Chinese claim; originating in ancient times when imperial China established consistent presence in the region. The first official map including the Sea in Chinese territory was issued in 1914 by the then Kuomintang government.
The People’s Republic of China has inherited the claim (in addition by the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan).
Such claim has been consistently used by the Chinese government, in internal documents, bilateral relations, and even in communication with the United Nations. It is however still hard to see a legal base for the claim. The latter seems to be based on a territorial water claim - normally extending 12 miles from the coast’s baseline -, or on a continental shelf claim. Some authors have argued that the Chinese claim rests on the claiming of the continental shelf of the Islands in the South China Sea.8 A number of countries, among which many APEC countries feature as well, have asked for clarification of the ‘U’ shaped line from China, but the People’s Republic has failed to give a reasoned answer - instead maintaining that their claim is correctly based, both in history and in law. The theory behind China’s claims might be unclear, but the situation on the ground certainly is not: China has fought some minor skirmishes with Vietnam over the Parcel Islands, and currently still administers them, despite Vietnamese protests.
Just like the Chinese one, the Vietnamese claim can be traced back to ancient imperial times, when the Vietnamese emperors sent expeditions to the Parcel islands, and one emperor is even rumoured to have referred to them as ‘the flower in his crown’. The French incorporated the Spratly Islands in their colonial empire, and the Vietnamese see themselves as the rightful inheritors of the French colonial claim. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese seemed to have more or less indulged on the Chinese claim, but after the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the Vietnamese claimed both the Parcel and the Spratly islands as being located in their territorial waters. The Vietnamese currently occupy a large part of the Spratly islands, and have reinforced their military presence in the area to stress their claim.
The Philippines have officially designated the South China Sea, or at least its eastern part, as the West Philippine Sea. A bold move by the Philippines, who seem to be determined to show China that their maritime claims still stand. The Philippine’s claim is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which includes an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends for 200 nautical miles and, naturally, the territorial waters which extend for 12 nautical miles from the coast’s baseline. The waters are extremely valuable to the Philippines, who see in them a presence of oil and gas reserves, rich fishing grounds, and an important trade hub. The Philippines do not recognise the Chinese claim on the Spratly Islands, and consequently the Chinese maritime claims based on it.
Other countries with maritime claims
Other countries in the region whose maritime claims overlap those of other states are Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. These countries have not clashed, at least not as openly as the other three involved states, on the issue of maritime disputes.
The southernmost actors in the South China Sea all claim their own respective territorial waters, continental shelves and respective EEZs - the last one extending for 200 nautical miles. Malaysia has a presence on the southern Spratly Islands, which is contested due to the claims of Vietnam and China. Brunei has claimed its EEZ but has no actual presence in the controversial areas of that zone. Indonesia’s EEZ extends into the South China Sea but is relatively uninvolved in the conflict, and because of this particular feature, some have put forward the countries potential as an intermediary.
As mentioned before, the dispute has drawn the attention of many other countries who are not directly concerned with it, most notably the United States with its “Pacific Shift”, with which the Superpower shifted its attention from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern one, Asia. China has often been seen as a challenge to the Americans, and the Obama administration has fully recognised this by intensifying US involvement in the region. Although the shift includes building better relations with China, it is also concerned with strengthening other Asian countries against the more assertive attitude of the latter in regional politics. American military presence in Asia has always been strong, and the Americans have not been hesitant to remind China of that. A ring of American allies, consisting of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, surround the Asian seas, and the US seems to be re-affirming its commitment to protect its allies.
Important to remember however that the U.S would greatly lose if the disputes over resources in the South China Sea were to escalate, due to its strong trade relationship with China and the Asian-Pacific countries.
Japan has its own reasons for being very interested in the South China Sea dispute. The Japanese have had a long history in the area, occupying large parts of the sea itself during the Second World War. More important, however, is the Japanese dispute with the Chinese in the East China Sea, over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The said new Chinese assertiveness also stroked home in that dispute, and Japan is looking for allies in its controversy with its big neighbour. Japan is growing more and more worried about China’s behaviour in the region, it is working hard to strengthen its own positions in the East China Sea, while engaging in diplomatic attempts to weaken China’s position. A resolution in the South China Sea is extremely important to Japan; China’s behaviour in the Japanese dispute would be greatly affected by it. Thus, Japan will continue to champion international law and challenge China’s claim, hopefully with new allies.
Russian and Indian involvement in the region and in the dispute has been more nuanced. India does have its own territorial disputes with the People’s Republic, but it is also determined to continue to engage in good relations with them, as with the other Asian states. India has been careful in picking either side, it will, almost certainly, not support any claim that is not based on international law. India has supported the Philippines in their maritime claims, and it is working with the Vietnamese in their research for oil.
Russian involvement in the South Asian region finds its roots in the Cold War. Russia is one of the oldest partners of Vietnam, and their reciprocal ties have recently been strengthened with military deals and pledges of support. Russia neighbours China in the South, and the relationship has witnessed good and bad times. In any case, the Russians seem to have chosen to support Vietnam and ignore Chinese criticism. This move may also be explained by the improvement of the relationship between Vietnam and the US, with Russia surely not being willing to allow to be supplanted by the old archenemy, as Vietnam’s champion against China. Russia’s role in the conflict, however, is still relatively low-key, and a clearer stance on the issue has not yet been taken by Moscow.
Past efforts and current challenges
One of the most important past efforts in the South China Sea has been the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, by the ASEAN countries plus China. The declaration re- affirms mutual respect between the parties, and the strong desire to resolve conflicts peacefully and co-operate on multiple levels. One of the most important clauses in the Declaration is clause 10, which expresses the desire of the signatories to create a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Yet, the declaration failed because of lack of commitment of the signing countries. Further talks between the involved countries have so far yielded little result, but now that tensions are raising it become more and more important that a peaceful solution is found. This is a chance for the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation to show its capability of reaching meaningful solutions despite so many players being involved. Recent APEC summits have been overshadowed by national rivalries, but everyone agrees that a resolution in the South China Sea would be good for all countries involved; it will heal the growing distrust between countries, which will ensure peace, stability and prosperity for all.