International Affairs

Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea

Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea
What are the South China Sea disputes? The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean that extends from the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast. The littoral countries of the South China Sea include China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among these nations. The disputes include all islands, reefs, banks, and other water bodies of the sea, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. The waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands are not considered to be part of the South China Sea, which forms another dispute. Nations are interested in retaining as well as acquiring rights to fishing areas, exploration and exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed and gaining strategic control of important shipping lanes. Why is the South China sea significant? The South China Sea is one of the busiest international waterways of the world- one of the main thoroughfares of global trade worth more than $5 trillion, which is experiencing growth every year. The sea is also a rich source of many minerals and hydrocarbons. It is due to this and the huge bulk of trade that there are disputed claims to different parts of the sea. The islands in this area can be grouped into two categories: The Paracels Islands: Clustered in the northwest corner of the Sea. The Spratly Islands: Located in the southeast corner. Background In the first half of the 20th century, the sea remained a quiet, conflict-free zone. Even after the Second World War, there were no claims to any of the islands in the area. China laid claim to the South China Sea in 1947 and demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map. Two of these were removed in the 1950s to bypass the Gulf of Tonkin as a gesture to communist comrades in North Vietnam. The remaining ‘nine-dash line’ covers hundreds of miles south and east of its southerly Hainan Island, thus covering almost 90% of the South China Sea. The huge reserve of oil and natural gas was discovered in the region in the 1960s, following which the territorial claims started rising at an unprecedented rate. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1994, established a legal framework that was intended to balance the economic and security interests of coastal states with those of maritime nations. While it has been signed and ratified by nearly all the nations in the South China Sea, based on their own interpretation of the UNCLOS, claimant countries have started to legitimize their claims. What are the disputes? In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to tackle disputes, but it did not have much effect. In 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam sent a joint submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for setting their claims, which again did not have any fruitful results. Philippines and China have laid claims to the Scarborough Shoal which is a little more than 100 miles from the Philippines and 500 miles from China. Both nations are dependent upon fishing in the South China Sea, specifically in this region, and fishing forms a vital part of the economy and livelihood of the people in the coastal areas of both nations. There was a tense stand-off between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 which led to China gaining de facto control over the entire region. In 2013, the Philippines raised this dispute to the Permanent Court Of Arbitration on the grounds that China’s claims violated the Philippines’ sovereignty under the 1982 UNCLOS. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that Chinese claims over 90 percent of the sea area are illegal and under UNCLOS, China is intruding into the Philippines’ sovereign waters with the 9-dash line which includes the Scarborough shoal. The verdict was refused by China. The role of ASEAN and the United States The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been formed to resolve regional disputes by peaceful means. However, ASEAN`s stand on the South China Sea disputes has weakened its image internationally and its failure to resolve the disputes has led to questions being raised about its credibility. The USA has no claim in the South China Sea region but has been critical of China’s authoritative attitude and insisted on free navigation of commercial vessels in the region for the purpose of smooth and effective international trade. USA had conducted military patrols along with the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and Indonesia and has increased the financial support for enhancing the military capabilities of ASEAN and East Asian nations. India and the South China Sea India had initially followed a neutral policy in the dispute, taking no stand with any nation. However, India is increasing ties with East Asian countries through Act East Policy and has indirectly raised questions about Chinese illegitimate claims in the South China Sea. After the Hague Tribunal’s verdict on the South China Sea, India was obligated to take a stand on the issue of freedom of navigation and commercial access. India had oil exploration programs in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, despite China`s protest. India supports the negotiation of Brunei’s sea dispute with China. The South China Sea region has been at the front of many conflicts of economic interests, civilian security, and the environment in recent years. Experts have said that the disputes will be settled only when the bordering nations can focus on functional cooperation and cooperative management instead of complete control over regions.

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