China can undoubtedly be compared to that mischievous and nasty child of the class who easily discovers new strategies to disgust and bully their allies and thus maintains toxic relations with its neighbors. This time the disputed country has taken a step forward and has been indulged in constructing islands in the South China Sea over which it claims it’s historical rights.
Talking about the geographical position of the South China Sea on the world map, surrounding countries like China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei hold the territorial claim over the sea. These claims are based on the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) which clearly mentions that a country’s territorial waters extend 200 nautical miles off the shore. This area is called the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ and UNCLOS says that countries have exclusive rights to all the resources and trade in their EEZ, it’s their sovereign territory. But any area that isn’t in an EEZ is regarded as international waters and it thus falls under UN maritime law which means everybody shares it.
But before discussing the dispute, it is quite important to address a basic question that why the South China Sea so important to all the concerned nations. What is the geographical significance of the South China Sea (SCS)? It is a key commercial thoroughfare connecting Asia with Europe and Africa and is known to support one-third Global shipping of international trade. About 80 percent of China’s oil imports arrive via the Strait of Malacca, in Indonesia and then sail across the SCS to reach China. Its seabed is believed to be rich in natural resources such as natural gas and oil and the world surmises that the area contains approximately 22 billion barrels of oil and 290 trillion cubic feet of gas. The area is a significant source of food for hundreds of millions of people as accounts for 10 percent of the world’s fisheries.
Now, the dispute found its roots when all the countries in the South China Sea accepted the 200 miles-EEZ threshold to determine their claims, all except China. China lays its claim over more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and marks its territory using a very confusing nine-dash line which stretches as far as 2000 km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Malaysia and Indonesia. It has been reported that China started building islands in the strategic waters in 2014 which has been justified by the Chinese government as a move to maintain “freedom of navigation” in the sea. But clearly, its action speaks otherwise. Now, this brings us to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea over which China has been building manmade bases much to the annoyance of other powers in the region- Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam all lay claim over some parts of the sea. Its a remote barely inhabited cluster of islands which is both geographically and symbolically at the heart of the South China Sea. Any country can lay its claim over the islands by extending its EEZ to include it but China claims that all the Spratly Islands belong to them and that brings us back to why they are building islands there. By adding 3200 acres of land, China envisions an island city in the South China Sea. With the aim of militarizing the area, it has completed the construction of seven military bases in the islands. China’s Fiery Cross Island that was once merely a mass of rock and a coral reef has now been converted into a military base accommodating basketball courts, running track, runway, and several other buildings. With the help of Fiery Cross Reef and other two man-made islands Subi and Mischief, Beijing can easily deploy compact aircraft and mobile missile launchers on the Spratly islands at any time. Though China has always claimed to achieve navigational purposes by constructing islands, its choice of location reveals more about its aims on the other front. Chinese decide where to make islands in such a manner so that they can make sure that every area in the sea is covered in terms of radio and military base.
Soon the world took notice of the devastating actions of China in the South China Sea and on 12 July 2016, a historic judgment was passed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal in Hague nullifying accused nation’s historic claim over the strategic sea. The country was also accused of violating the international laws and causing irreparable harm to the marine life of the area, harming Philippines ships and interfering with the innocent country’s fishing and oil explorations. But though the decision was legally binding, there was no mechanism of enforcing it. Thus, China displeased with the decision soon passed a regulation reaffirming the country’s jurisdiction over its territorial sea thereby rejecting the tribunal’s judgment. The greatest irony was that the country, namely the Philippines, who dragged China to the tribunal and for whom the judgment was a clear victory is now carrying on the bilateral negotiations forgetting the interests of his poor fishermen and pride of the nation. The country is bankrolled by China and thus Manila is compelled to ensure Beijing’s ‘core interests’.
Although the United States has no direct claims in the SCS, it is the world’s lone superpower and uses its massive Navy to defend international waters. China sees the US presence in the area as the encroachment in it’s backward but it does have security commitments in East Asia and is allied with several surrounding countries. But on the other hand, we all know that the US will never be in conflict with China for unnecessary reasons, it was primarily done to stop China from increasing its power in the strategic area. Furthermore, SCS is a vital trade route in the global supply chain thus used by many American companies who produce goods in the region. In order to check excessive claims, the US has conducted freedom of navigation operations by patrolling in the area which has helped in managing the situation and thus granting the free passage to the commercial ships.
In the end, I would like to mention that whenever we talk about China, India is never unheard. Over 55 percent of India’s trade passes through the SCS and the strait of Malacca, therefore India publically supports the US operations and the Hague’s ruling of 2016. Well know about the relevance of the SCS, India is working on deepening its relations with the ASEAN countries especially those who dispute China’s presence in the disputed waters. Though India imports most of its crude oil from the Middle East but due to protracted conflicts in the region, its good to diversify its imports and thus cooperate with the ASEAN countries. Though the region has not witnessed any instances of violence, ASEAN has been working with China to maintain an official code of conduct in order to avoid any clashes in the disputed waters and thus resolve the issue by negotiations.