As the geopolitical world order changes over the course of the 21st century from a monopolar to a bipolar world with two forces, a dominant and a rising, compete for dominance over their spheres of influence, nowhere do the US and Chinese interests come into conflict, as they do in the South-China sea. As two nations of immense wealth, influence, and power, and the intention to dominate the other politically as well as militarily, they stand engaged in a silent ‘Cold War’ against each other, with the South-China sea being the ground zero.
The South-China sea being a major focal point for both sides, an escalating conflict in the region along with other states is a presumption not so irrational. All nations today with a coastline in the South-China sea have disputes and disagreements with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is seen by many including the Americans as a hegemon poised to dominate the region and to ‘Rule the Waves.’
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The South-China sea is geographically considered to be an important sea route in the Far-Eastern region. It is strategically located in an area surrounded by nations that have many disputes amongst themselves. It has the Chinese southern coast and Republic of China (ROC) in the north, the Vietnamese on the west, Indonesia in the south, and the Philippines in the east. Large swathes of the sea have been claimed by many nations including PRC and Taiwan (ROC) as their own Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). These claims which have been made overlap each other’s EEZs and are a flashpoint for continuous tensions and international arbitration attempts, all of which till date have borne no significant fruits.
These territorial claims made by their respective countries stand not without good reason. There happens to be, depending upon different studies which reflect, albeit different yet, similar results, an abundance of untapped natural resources under the sea bed such as oil and natural gas among others. Not to mention it is also home to large quantities of fisheries, the south-east Asian seafood market and industry is dependent upon the catch of fish from this region.
Today most of the South-China sea is claimed by the PRC, from its southern coast down all the way to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei which is also known as the ‘9-Dash Line’. Interestingly this same 9-Dash Line with minor alterations is also claimed by the ROC. The basis for both of these claims arises out of certain Chinese maps which surfaced around 1947 under the nationalist Guomindang government. It was then known as the 11-Dash Line. It is believed that the Chinese ‘claimed’- under dubious circumstances- these waters and the minor uninhabited islands, as their own. It is believed to have been done somewhere between 1908 and 1948 allegedly as a reaction to continuous western imperial attacks on China as well as wars in which it was defeated and humiliated.
Since the Boxer insurrection, many European nations, as well as Japan, stationed their troops in China, controlled parts of Chinese territory, and/or profiteered from Chinese war reparations. Even after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and the creation of a republic, military conflicts and defeats continued especially at the hands of the Japanese which reached the peak during WW2. It was in this context that China had tried to stake a claim to a region and some islands on the international stage to try and demonstrate its relevance and strength.
After the flight of the nationalists in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) altered its claim line to the 9-Dash Line so as to accommodate and not antagonize Vietnam which at that time was also a communist state. But the PRC did eventually go to war with the Vietnamese in 1979 which led to the full Chinese occupation of the Paracel Islands and the expulsion of the Vietnamese Navy.
Today the South-China sea is the second busiest shipping route in the world and carries a huge amount of tonnage through its waters. Most of the cargo is raw material imports by China such as oil and natural gas supplied by the Gulf nations from the Persian Gulf along the Strait of Hormuz through the Indian ocean and the straits of Malacca into the South-China sea. There are also many other imports and exports of raw materials and goods by the Chinese as well as other countries.
The economic fallout from the cessation of all merchant naval operations due to rising tensions would be unprecedented, potentially leading to a recession among South-East Asian nations. The worst affected in such a scenario would be the People’s Republic of China, which is heavily reliant on maritime trade passing through the South China Sea for economic growth. This means that only Chinese control over the region can ensure the necessary maritime trade for the PRC to keep its manufacturing engines running, allowing the economy to thrive and grow.
There is also a geopolitical angle to it. Being a rising power and trying to challenge the world order set by a sole superpower, the PRC would like to secure its territorial and especially its maritime interests for which the PRC has already constructed a huge navy in the last decade. Since 2000, in 20 years China has more than tripled its battle force fleet according to the US. The PRC intends to control large parts of the Indian and Pacific Ocean and as such the South-China sea plays a pivotal role being in the middle of both the oceans.
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This has also led to a massive build-up of artificial islands in the South-China sea in the Paracel and the Spratly Islands consisting of logistical bases and airstrips to assert its dominance and control over the region at the expense of the rich Coral Reefs in the region and aquatic flora and fauna. On top of that the PRC fully claims the ROC to its own territory and refuses to acknowledge its legitimacy and has threatened a full-scale amphibious invasion, should it take place would give much greater command over the South-China as well as the East China sea.
International Law Intervention
UNCLOS is an acronym for the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. Many of the activities conducted by China, its territorial claims, the building of artificial military islands, interdiction of foreign fishing trawlers technically in international waters, are grossly violative of the UNCLOS to which China is a signatory. The PRC has been called out for its expansionist behaviour by most of the countries and international organisations including the UN as well as the US.
Along a similar line, the Philippines filed a case of international arbitration against China, with regards to their disputed claims in the South-China Sea, the verdict of which given in 2016 came in the favour of the Philippines whereby the international court held the Chinese claims to the South-China Sea had no legal backing under international law rejecting the aforementioned historical maps put forth by China upon which it based its claims. This verdict has been rejected by China and it has refused to comply with any international pressure as to compel it to back its maritime claims.
FONOP is an acronym that stands for Freedom of Navigation Operation. It is a principle of international law whereby, ‘ships flying the flag of any sovereign state would not suffer interference from other states, apart from the exceptions provided for in international law. ‘ Under this, all nations are free to operate and sail their merchant as well as naval vessels in international waters without the fear of arbitrary interception by other states. Such operations are quite frequently conducted by the US Navy all over the world and especially in the South-China sea.
Very recently the Destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a FONOP in the South-China sea near the Paracel Islands drawing sharp criticism from PLA Southern Theatre Command terming the act as ‘illegal’ as well as ‘unprofessional and irresponsible’. While on the other hand, the US Seventh Fleet has stated that the operation was ‘consistent with international law’ and was conducted to challenge PRC’s ‘unlawful maritime claims.’ India also faced similar interference when one of its vessels was transiting the South-China Sea and also when state-run ONGC signed an oil exploration agreement, with Vietnam, the Chinese foreign ministry released a statement urging other nations from exploring the natural resources of the South-China sea, attempting to keep the natural resources of the sea to itself.
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The South China Sea is an important trading crossroads for several of the world’s top economies. In 2016, almost 64 percent of China’s marine trade travelled via the South China Sea, while approximately 42 percent of Japan’s marine trade travelled through the same waterway. With just over 14 percent of its maritime traffic going through the region, the United States is less reliant on the South China Sea.
For decades there have been competing claims over who controls the hundreds of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals and their surrounding waters. No one disputed the sovereignty of these territories before 1930, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan said that parts of the South China Sea belong to them.
Over the past six decades China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam have occupied islands in the South China Sea, reclaimed land, and built military bases on them to assert their sovereignty. China’s efforts on this front have been the most aggressive. According to the US government since 2014, China has reclaimed more than 3000 acres in the Nansha or Spratly islands.
One such was the example of Yongshu or Fiery cross reef. It was a sandbank till august 2014. But in June 2016 it had been transformed into a seaport with an airstrip. China says that their reclamation project is to meet the civil and defence needs, which here the US denies. The US says China is reaching too far too fast and militarizing the islands. This is due to a variety of factors, including the presence of US allies in the region.
US and the South-China Sea
Although the United States has no claim to the South-China Sea, it has been a vocal critic of China’s aggression and has emphasized that free navigation of commercial vessels in the region is crucial for regional and international trade. Joint military patrols were performed with the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and Indonesia. The US also boosted financial support for ASEAN and East Asian countries’ military capacities, as well as bilateral defence cooperation with these countries.
Given the importance of the South China Sea to Chinese trade, Beijing may be more willing to take action to maintain free trade rather than disturb regional trade flows.
The marine life in the South China Sea is diverse. The enormous runoff of nutrient-laden waters from land, as well as upwellings of water in particular places of the sea, contribute to this abundance. The sea, on the other hand, is heavily fished and serves as the primary supply of animal protein for Southeast Asia’s densely populated region. Tuna, mackerel, croaker, anchovy, shrimp, and shellfish are among the most abundant. Almost the majority of the catch is consumed on the spot, either fresh or preserved.
Large oil and natural gas reserves have been discovered beneath the South China Sea’s surface. North of Borneo, east of the Malay Peninsula, and northwest of Palawan are the main hydrocarbon production areas. Some of the world’s most vital maritime channels are found in the South China Sea. The Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea are the principal routes to and from Pacific and Indian Ocean ports. Oil and minerals tend to go north, whereas food and manufactured products tend to move south.
Some sections of the middle South China Sea are not well sounded, and nautical charts show “dangerous ground” on them. International territorial disputes, particularly over the Spratly Islands, which lie in the oil-rich zone between Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam, have prompted a “dangerous” label. Those four nations, as well as China and Taiwan, have placed claims to the islands.
Till now there has never actually been any real combat between the belligerent sides except for the occasional attack or sinking of a fishing boat. But as tensions rise and the PRC’s expansionist policies continue, conflict seems very likely.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has already surpassed the US navy in terms of active combat vessels to become the largest in the world and with the manner in which absolute power in the PRC has been concentrated by President Xi as well as his clear statements to the military to prepare for war, conflict always seems just around the corner. In terms of the likelihood of an invasion of the ROC, conflict might just be inevitable.
The question in such a case would be the reaction of the US and its allies, and their willingness to accept risk and suffer significant losses for the sake of a small distant island, as well as the west’s ability to prevent this if it so desired. For the time being, only time will tell if the ‘unsinkable carrier’ can withstand the communist armada’s waves.