The South China Sea with a surface area of 3.6 million square kilometers is a critical commercial route for a considerable portion of world’s merchant shipping through which about US$5 trillion worth of trade passes each year. It is undoubtedly an important economic and strategic sub-region of the Indo-Pacific and also the subject of serious territorial disputes that have been the cause of conflict and tension. The sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas together with its major fishing grounds .have antagonized competing claimant littoral countries. As early as 1970s, these countries began to claim islands and various zones in the South China Sea’s two largely uninhabited archipelagos of Paracel and Spratly. The Paracel group of islands located in the northern part of the South China Sea was captured in 1974 by China from South Vietnam and is now claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, whereas the Spratly Islands in the southern portion of the sea and far from the mainland China are claimed by China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. These nations, in pursuit of lawful grounds supporting their territorial claims and legal basis to establish international boundaries, have made attempts to secure or to build solid physical footholds in the disputed areas. Of the approximately 45 islands, cays and reefs that are occupied, all contain structures manned by military forces of Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines.
Relying on disputable evidence from ancient times, as well as more recent claims including historical usage and also a U-shaped “nine-dash line” drawn on a map published by the Kuomintang Government in 1947 China makes the largest claim in the South China Sea that extends for 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, encompassing over half of the Sea. Imperial Japan occupied Spratly and Paracel islands during the Second World War and later recognized the claim of the Republic of China, now Taiwan, in a 1952 peace treaty. China’s claim is disputed by other Southeast Asian territorial claimants and lacks sufficient legal foundation under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China itself is a party. The Convention enshrines a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for the states to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories and China’s nine-dash line includes waters beyond these zones. The EEZ however is not intended to serve as a security zone, and UNCLOS also guarantees wide-ranging passage rights for naval vessels and military aircrafts. In the event of overlapped zones, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants, which in the case of South China Sea they have so far failed to agree on a settlement.
In 2009, Vietnam began reclaiming land around some of the 48 small islands it had occupied since the 1970s. This move prompted China to resort to a much larger reclamations on submerged features it first began to occupy in the 1980s. Beijing for the past few years, has been asserting greater control over faraway waters that were previously considered international or were claimed by other countries. Not only it seized small land formations or reefs, but also embarked on dredging up seabed sediment to make artificial islands catering for surveillance and military structures. For the Chinese military strategists China’s control over the South China Sea is a must to defend itself, and to push the United States out of the Western Pacific if it wishes to emerge as a naval power. China also depends on the shipping routes that go through the sea, and is eager to lay claim to oil and other resources to fuel its vibrant economy.
In 2013 the Philippines filed a complaint in the International Court of Justice(ICJ) after China took control of a reef known as “Scarborough Shoal” about 140 miles from the Philippine coast. Manila accused Beijing of violating international law by interfering with fishing, endangering ships and failing to protect the marine environment at the reef. The Philippines also asked the international tribunal to reject China’s claim to sovereignty over waters within a “nine-dash line” that appears on official Chinese maps. The tribunal in 2016 ruled categorically in favor of the Philippines, indicating that China had violated international law by endangering Philippine ships and damaging the marine environment. The court also dismissed China’s justification saying any historic rights that China enjoyed previously “were extinguished” by the treaty. China had boycotted the international tribunal that was set up to hear the case and has said it will not “accept, recognize or execute” its decision. Since the case was filed, China has intensified dredging operations and transformation of reefs into artificial islands with military runways and naval harbors, and maintains that UNCLOS gives the coastal states the right to regulate not only the economic activities but also foreign military activities in their EEZs.
China's large scale island building and declaration of its sovereignty on the surrounding waters and airspace has invited strong opposition not only from the regional states, but also from maritime powers like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. The United States stepped up its military activities and naval presence in the region in recent years, including freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) initiated in January and March 2018 to challenge what Washington calls “attempts by coastal states to unlawfully restrict access to the seas”. These operations in some instances were associated by tensions arising from warnings or close to encounter preventive and surveillance moves on the part of Chinese forces stationed in the area.
In July 2020 U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo issued a statement declaring most of China’s claims in the South China Sea as unlawful. The statement also rejected all of Beijing’s claims that extend beyond twelve nautical miles from Chinese shores and aligned U.S. policy with the 2016 international tribunal ruling. Until then the U.S. despite expressing its opposition to China’s actions did not call them “illegal” and took no sides on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. A month later Washington imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese companies and several individuals who allegedly participated in building and militarizing disputed artificial islands in the South China Sea.
China’s recent legislation that authorize its coast guard to use weapons against foreign vessels that Beijing considers to be unlawfully entering its waters has only added to the complexity of the issue. The U.S. State Department was quick to voice concern about the legislation and warned China against the use of force in disputed waters. The legislation also offered Washington the needed justifications for more naval patrols in the area, to recruit new allies and give more support to old ones. Countries as far away as Canada and Western Europe are sending naval vessels to the contested South China Sea this year as pushback against Beijing. In early February 2021 the French Defense Minister said that France had dispatched an attack submarine to the region. A British defense official said last month the U.K.’s flagship aircraft carrier strike group was ready to enter the waterway. Royal Canadian Navy warship sailed near the sea in January with a passage through the Taiwan Strait on its way to join exercises with Australian, Japanese and U.S. Navies. Japan, not a claimant in the region, has joined a growing list of countries that are challenging China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea by presenting an official note to the United Nations rejecting China’s baseline claims and denouncing its efforts to limit the freedom of navigation and overflight. Japan’s note is the latest in series of recent criticisms of China’s position, joining submissions to the U.N. from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States.
The new U.S president has so far projected a tough line on China indicating that his China policy shall not revert to what it was during Obama administration. Having in mind the history of China’s gradual but resolute pursuit of territorial claims and the far-reaching implications of its further assertive conducts in the South China Sea, this seemingly regional dispute may earn the tendency to transform into an international crisis with unforeseen consequences.
Hossein Ebrahim Khani
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)