Maritime Asia has emerged as a new geopolitical important area in recent years as the nations of Asia evolve into a major trading and resource-consuming powers with economic growth dependent on seaborne trade. China has been aggressively expanding its maritime influence, which may be seen through its activities within the South China Sea (SCS).
The South China Sea is an arm of the western Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia. It is south of China, east & south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, and north of the island of Borneo. Bordering states & territories (clockwise from north):
The People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. It is connected by Taiwan Strait with the East China Sea and by Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea. It contains numerous shoals, reefs, atolls, and islands. The Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal are the most important.
The Chinese assertions within the South China Sea and its hegemonic ambitions became an explanation for concern for peace and stability within the region.
Significance of South China Sea
The geographic location of the SCS is strategically important. As it links the Indian Ocean to the Pacific and maybe a critical shipping channel. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), one-third of the global shipping passes through it, carrying trillions of trade. Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80% of China’s petroleum imports come through the South China Sea.
SCS is believed to possess huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. According to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of a minimum of seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The Strait of Malacca connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and is
900 km long and is additionally a prominent trade route between East Asia and West Asia-Europe. The Strait of Malacca is a choke point, it is always in the interest of great powers to control such a strategic location. Thus, thanks to the presence of this chokepoint, SCS assumes much importance for China and other regional countries. In the context of naval diplomacy, it’s a geopolitical term wont to signify a world strait whose control could potentially affect commercial transit.
Encroaching Exclusive Economic Zone
EEZ is a formula based on compromise and was recognized by the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1976. It covers an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea: it can extend to a maximum of 200 nautical miles from the baselines.
Activities allowed in EEZ are the creation and use of artificial islands, installations, and structures.
Marine scientific research.
The protection and preservation of the marine environment.
In 1947, China took control of some islets within the South China Sea occupied by Japan in World War–II. Since 1953, China has been claiming almost the whole South China Sea, reflected during a map created with a 9-dash line to point out them as a neighborhood of China
In 2016, the Philippines had filed an arbitration case within the Permanent Court of Arbitration, seeking to strike down China’s expansive territorial claims within the South China Sea. The tribunal issued a choice finding that there’s no legal basis to say “historic rights” to islands within the South China Sea and therefore the 9-dash line is inconsistent with the Convention on the Law of the ocean. However, China refused to abide by the judgment.
China has asserted a maritime claim (based on historic rights) to an outsized part of the South China Sea that’s not according to international law. The SCS has quite a dozen overlapping EEZ in accordance with the 1982 Convention on the Law of the ocean (UNCLOS) a world treaty that sets out important maritime rules). As per UNCLOS, countries in their EEZ can explore oil, natural resource, living and non-living natural resources including resources under the ocean, seabed, and subsoil.
Great Wall of Sand
There are many interconnected disputes over who is responsible for the varied islands, rocks, shoals, and reefs scattered throughout the South China Sea waters.
The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines. The Scarborough Shoal is claimed by the Philippines, China, and Taiwan.
Further, since 2010, China has been converting uninhabited islets into artificial islets to bring them under UNCLOS (examples would come with Haven Reef, Johnson South Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef).
China has been changing the dimensions and structure of the reefs by modifying their physical land features. It has also established airstrips on Parcel and Spratly.
Chinese fishing fleets are “engaged in paramilitary work on behalf of the state instead of the commercial enterprise of fishing.
The US is extremely critical of this building of artificial islands and terms these actions of China as building a ‘great wall of sand’.
India has maintained that it is not a party to the SCS dispute and its presence in the SCS is not to contain China but for its own economic interests, especially that of its energy security needs. However, China’s increasing ability to make a decision and expand its role within the South China Sea has compelled India to reevaluate its approach on the difficulty. As a key element of the Act East Policy, India has started internationalizing disputes in the Indo-Pacific region to psychological pressure on irritants (the recent mentions of
South China Sea dispute in bilateral statements between India-USA and India-France is a testimony to the fact). Further, India is aggressively using the soft tool of Buddhist legacy to reclaim the unique historical leverage to make a strong bond with the Southeast Asian region. India has also deployed its navy with Vietnam within the South China Sea for the cover of sea lanes of communication (SLOC), denying China any space for assertion. Also, India is a component of the Quad Initiative (India, US, Japan, Australia) and the lynchpin of the Indo-Pacific narrative. These initiatives are viewed as a containment strategy by China. Today’s world comprises extensive interconnections of countries and people. Any particular conflict, therefore, has the potential to possess a ripple effect on countries and institutions aside from the direct stakeholders. China must realize that it cannot continue with its bullying tactics and win the trust of its neighbors and respect from the International Community. It is therefore desirable that all the countries of this region should abide by rule-based international.
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