The South China Sea is thought to host large deposits of oil and natural gas, but these resources are still mostly intact thanks to the ongoing disputes over sovereignty. On the other hand, various littoral countries pioneered by Vietnam and the Philippines had gained considerable interests by initiating hydrocarbon procession even if within a limited scope. In the recent years, Hanoi and Manila became more aggressive and persistent in their policies toward rights to utilize resources in and develop facilities on the South China Sea. Territorial disputes around the region are triggered by such economic concerns in general.
There is today an ongoing stand-off between the Philippines and China in the Scarborough Shoal, together with the subtle competition between Japan, Vietnam and India on one side and China and her allies on the other. An arms race is obviously stage-managed throughout the region, although all sides claim that they do not target each other at all. More advanced weaponry and retrofitted equipment are being imported, and rapid modernization programs are undergone by the littoral states’ navies nowadays.
Legal Basis of the Dispute
The Chinese government had presented a map to the U.N. in 2009, claiming the whole South China Sea under its sovereignty. However, the map does not clearly define the maritime borders of China since there are around 200 islets (although some can be classified as “islands”), and in addition coral outcrops, reefs and banks spread all around the resource-rich sea.
Robert Beckman, professor of international law at the National University of Singapore, believes that Chinese claims can be resolved through international arbitration over the Spratly Archipelago, which constitutes an important sector of the disputed sea. According to Beckman, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) constitutes the primary legal statute with the broadest content and with the largest international consent on the issue of identifying maritime borders. In accordance with UNCLOS, the Spratly region should have been entitled to the statute of “territorial waters,” if the pieces of tiny land within the region were only rocks and islets. Therefore, every littoral country would have the right to claim up to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) away from their coasts.
But the tricky issue is that some pieces of land among the Spratlys are habitable, and thus we come up with China’s claim of two hundred miles of “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) around habitable “islands” spread throughout the region. Claimed in a similar fashion based on the argument that there exist habitable islands within their maritime territory, Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ claims of EEZ overlap with Chinese claims. Thus, while most of the South China Sea is still considered “international waters” according to extra-regional states such as India, Japan and the U.S., we see littoral countries trying to hang onto parts or the whole of the Spratly Archipelago.
Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and China all have competing demands over the islands in the sea today. But the international legal basis of the consequent claims is still unresolved. Today, China still opposes the Philippines’ proposal to bring the issue to international arbitration. China also consistently indicates that it is against “internationalizing” the issue by either bringing it to the agendas of multilateral organizations or seeking “sponsors” such as the U.S. or Japan by enabling them to interfere and mediate.
Analysts point out that the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) National Congress will take place this fall, and it is unlikely for China to take any serious steps in terms of military deterrence before the congress. On the other hand, as the Chinese leadership is entering a transition period this fall, ruling elites such as Communist Party members, ministers and generals will try to seem firm and assertive in front of the public. Nationalist tendencies are on the increase among the Chinese population, thus the political and military elite will continue to use a harsh discourse on issues such as the one concerning the South China Sea, in which people are sensitive and considerably irreconcilable.
Claims Brought to ASEAN
The ASEAN summit of last month witnessed Southeast Asian countries’ efforts to find common ground regarding the antagonism in the South China Sea. The Philippines urged the member countries to consent by proposing to draft a common “code of conduct” in resolving maritime disputes among the ASEAN members. A “code of conduct” would enable smaller ASEAN states littoral to the South China Sea to stand together in a united front while negotiating with China. China is against this proposal, and the stance of Cambodia will probably appear similar to the Chinese delegation’s as Cambodia is traditionally a close ally of China in the region.
In conclusion, the dispute in the South China Sea seems to be a candidate issue to elicit the true nature and attributes of China’s “peaceful” rise. Time will show if China will be able to insist on its unilateral initiatives, wage the conflict further and subdue its strategic competitors, or move toward cooperative grounds with its maritime neighbors in international platforms such as the U.N. or ASEAN. Furthermore, regional alignments will become more rigid through implicit demonstrations of solidarity and hostility, with China and the supporters of its case on one side and on the other side its opponents pioneered by the U.S. and its regional allies in South and East Asia.
1. Bonnie S. Glaser, “South China Sea Dispute: Causes and Solutions”, Reports of CSIS-Claremont McKenna College, 2011, available at http://csis.org/files/attachments/111128_Glaser_South_China_Sea_Dispute_Causes_Solutions.pdf
5. Clive Schofield, Ian Storey, The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions, 2009, pgs. 12 – 19, Washington DC: The Jamestown Foundation.
6. Jane Perlez, “Dispute Between China and Philippines Over Island Becomes More Heated”, The New York Times, 10 May 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/11/world/asia/china-philippines-dispute-over-island-gets-more-heated.html
7. Bonnie S. Glaser, “South China Sea Dispute: Causes and Solutions”, Reports of CSIS-Claremont McKenna College, 2011, available at http://csis.org/files/attachments/111128_Glaser_South_China_Sea_Dispute_Causes_Solutions.pdf
8. Emmanuel Yujuico, “The Real Story Behind the South China Sea Dispute”, International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy, LSE, 2012, available at http://www2.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/programmes/southEastAsiaProgramme/pdfs/SA_southchinaseadispute.pdf