While the world reels under the global Coronavirus malady – which emerged in Wuhan last year –China is going forward with its territorial aspirations, on both land and sea routes. The ongoing stand-off with India which has resulted in the biggest military conflict in five decades is one facet of it; the South China Sea (SCS) is another.
Where Is the South China Sea?
The South China Sea is a marginal sea in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses an area of around 3,500,000 square kilometers with China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia in its north, west, east, and south respectively. While Vietnam prefers to call SCS the East Sea, the Philippines calls it the West Philippines Sea.
What Is the Dispute About?
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have competing claims over this area which includes some of the most strategically important maritime territories in the world. China, for the past few years, has been asserting its control over faraway waters which were previously considered as an International Territory or claimed by other countries.
Beijing is using a passive-aggressive strategy by seizing small land formations or reefs and dredging them to make them compatible with small military installations. Moreover, China’s Navy has grown more belligerent in patrolling these claims and chasing off non-Chinese ships – which the smaller neighbor nations see as its quest to unilaterally dominate the region.
The United States has gotten involved since 2010. Although it does not officially take a stand on sovereignty issues in the area, Washington has maintained its high-end naval patrolling of the areas which it considers as International. This has expectedly irked Beijing and has often resulted in a war of words and warnings of escalation.
If the disputes were to aggravate, researchers believe it could have serious consequences for diplomatic relations and stability in the region. This is in addition to a major probability of SCS becoming a battlefield for the possible cold-war between Beijing and Washington and a harbinger for power-politics in the post-COVID world.
What’s at Stake?
In the center of the kerfuffle lie two archipelagos - Paracels and the Spratlys which are claimed wholly or partially by several countries. Alongside the islands, there are numerous rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks, and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal that have become parts of the dispute.
Although largely inhabited, the Spratlys and Paracels may have huge reserves of natural resources on and around them. The US Energy Information Agency estimates there are upward of 10 barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the sea — more than the reserves of some of the world’s biggest energy exporters.
The waters also contain lucrative fisheries which according to some estimates accounts for around 10% of the global total. Due to the ongoing conflicts, there has been a little detailed exploration of the area, so these estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighboring areas.
The Sea’s greatest value still, is as a trade route. $5.3 trillion worth of goods move through the disputed sea every year, which is about 30 percent of global maritime trade. Although no claimant will benefit from any disruption in free-trade through the sea, sovereign control over the area by any one power will come with a gargantuan strategic advantage.
Who Claims What?
Both China and Taiwan claim the largest portion of the disputed region. China defines its territory by a “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its southernmost province of Hainan. This, according to Beijing, is based on centuries-old references of its claim over the Spratlys and the Paracels archipelagos.
Vietnam vehemently disputes China's historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the island-groupings since the 17th Century - and has the documents to prove it.
The Philippines is another major claimant for the territory, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for its share in the region. Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal which is 100 miles from the former and five times as much from the later.
If China were to get what it claimed, then the Philippines stands to lose a huge chunk of off-shore territory. Thereby in 2016, it had turned to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They asked for invalidation of Beijing's vast claims using the "nine-dash line", and a categorical classification of the disputed areas as islands, submerged banks, or low-tide coral outcrop.
The tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippians and said that China has "no historical rights" based on the "nine-dash line" map. This was expectedly rebuked by Beijing (and Taiwan) which previously boycotted its proceedings and then discarded it as “ill-found”.
Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the SCS that according to them falls within their economic zones, as defined by the UNCLOS. Although Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys, Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands.
What Is the Present Situation?
As of 24th June, China has established two administrative districts namely the “Nansha District” in Paracels and the “Xisha District” in the Spratly Islands which is called a ‘normal administrative move’. This saw a series of hostile rhetoric from both Vietnam and the Philippians which condemned Beijing for using the COVID-19 pandemic for its expansionist adventures.
China has also, through its Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, given 80 disputed islands, reefs, and other geographical features around the two archipelagos Chinese names. It was yet another unilateral, passive-aggressive move to change the status-quo and was retaliated with increased navy deployment by the US and Australia.
A few months ago, Vietnam had lodged a complaint at the UN stating that China had illegally sunk a fishing trawler near Paracels, killing eight people on board. In March, China built two research stations on the territory claimed by the Philippines.
More recently, several Taiwanese marines have been deployed in the region signaling the heightened antagonism between the two territories. There has also been an extended presence of the US aircraft carriers which is being seen as a move to show its support for both Taiwan and India – both of which are facing increased pressure from Beijing.
The View From India
Like every other country, India also has a great interest vested in the peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea through the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. Half of India’s sea-borne international trade passes through these straits.
Besides, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – a group involving all the aforementioned island nations – constitutes one of the largest trade partners of India. Also, India, since the last few years, is strongly considering diversifying its immense oil imports. Thus the potential energy resources in the SCS have caught the eye of New Delhi.
The region’s economic importance thus translates into national security interests for New Delhi. If there were any disruption in the SCS, India would suffer heavy economic consequences. Similarly, should a hostile power like China come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway.
Through its Look East Policy, New Delhi has pursued intensifying its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, military training and cooperation, generous lines of credit, and the most recent help during the pandemic.
With a military threat looming in the North vis-à-vis Ladakh and Sikkim, China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region it is imperative for New Delhi that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
India for this quest has recently strengthened its nautical ties with the US, Japan, and Australia with periodical military drills and practices in the Indian Ocean. It was a part of this policy that New Delhi and Canberra recently signed a landmark defense pact allowing their militaries to use each other’s bases and scale up military cooperation.
China prefers bilateral negotiations with the other parties. But many of its neighbors argue that China's relative size and clout give it an unfair advantage. Some countries have argued that Beijing should negotiate with the ASEAN nations. However, China is opposed to this, while the organization is also divided over how to resolve the dispute.
Beijing has also rebuffed any International solution of the issue as to preclude any involvement of the US, India, or any other interested countries.
Is There a Bigger Picture?
China sees itself as a growing world power that has a right to further its interests in its backyard, just as Western countries have done for centuries. Beijing considers the South China Sea as an area of traditional Chinese influence and sees its control as a way to assert greater power over Asian countries.
China’s world-dominating aspirations are coupled with apprehensions of isolation and alliance formations to check its growth. It also argues that the global status quo is engineered to serve Western interests first. This results in Beijing’s disregard of multi-national organizations such as the South China Sea Tribunal and the UNCLOS.
On the other hand as arguably the only superpower, the US self-proclaims the role of shaping the world order. The rising power-balance in Asia takes a lion’s share in its foreign policy. So now while Beijing is trying to extend its powers in the region, Washington is trying to mold China’s growth on its terms and principles.
The unraveling of this major dispute – whichever side it goes – will not be able to stop China’s rise but will surely tell whether China becomes the kind of power that works within the global system, or against it.By: Rudransh