The South China Sea Dispute

South China Sea

One of the most contentious issue of international politics in the contemporary period has been the dispute over the South China Sea (SCS). The conflict involves rival claims over the busy waterway by different countries including China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. The conflict was internationalised when Philippines brought the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2013. What is the conflict and why is the control of SCS so vital are therefore questions that require immediate attention.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) headquartered in Haque, Netherlands, in 2016 ruled in favour of Philippines. Writing about the PCA verdict, ‘The Economist’ wrote that “The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruling has demolished China’s expansive historical claims in South China Sea and pointed out that Beijing has no entitlement to an economic zone within 200 miles of Mischief and Thomas reefs, is a landmark judgement that upholds a rule-based international maritime order enshrined in the UNCLOS.”

Understanding the PCA Ruling

The PCA ruled that China’s claims to the waters within the so called “nine-dash line”, with wide ranging economic interests, was a breach of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Therefore central to the SCS conflict is the controversial “nine-dash line” of China. First used in the maps published by the Republic of China on December 1,1947, the line stretches hundreds of kilometres south and east in the southern Hainan island, covering the strategic Paracel and Spratly island chains. The line is thus used to demarcate Chinese boundary covering the whole SCS. China’s stand, which the court found illegal, has been that since ancient history (since past 2000 years) these two islands have been regarded as its integral part.

The court also slammed China for damaging parts of the ecosystem in the Spratly islands(a contested archipelago), on account of overfishing and development of artifical islands. The panel held the Chinese guilty of violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights. Further, it also blamed China for causing ‘severe harm to the coral reef environment’ by building artificial islands. Although China had boycotted the proceedings and the PCA verdict is also non-binding, the fact remains that the court’s use of extremely harsh language has dented China’s image considerably. Rejecting the international ruling, Chinese officials termed the ruling as “null and void” and devoid of any “binding force”. Some experts have also argued that China is contemplating on establishing a military ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ (ADIZ) in the SCS. Imposition of ADIZ would imply that overflying planes would have to first notify China before entering the airspace. Chinese scholars have also stressed that the entire episode of PCA ruling is nothing but a US cover to enforce its “Pivot to Asia” or Rebalance strategy, aimed at the containment of China.

However, amidst these claims and counter-claims one thing that is clear is the increased importance of the SCS in today’s geopolitics. Being one of the busiest international waterways, it is one of the main arteries of global economy and trade. More than five trillion dollar worth of trade vessels pass through this waterway every year. Moreover, SCS is also resource rich as it contains numerous offshore oil and gas blocks. It is understandable why the control of SCS has become so vital today not only for China but for all the regional as well as extra-regional powers like the US. The country that will succeed in securing the SCS can directly control the trans-pacific trade and also ensure its energy security.
It should hence not be a surprise that China, which is eyeing to dethrone US from the position of numero uno in world politics, has come out criticising the ruling vociferously. India’s stand in the entire episode has been very calculative. While it has reaffirmed its support for a rule-based maritime order and respect for international organisations it has also been wary of not poking China extensively on the issue.

As far as China is concerned, it needs to understand that with great power comes great responsibility too. In its bid to become the next superpower it is important that China accompanies its military and economic power with soft power as well. China can become the leader of the comity of sovereign nation states but to ‘sustain’ that position like the US has for the past 70 years, will require a better use of persuasive power and a willingness to compromise.


Picture Credits: NewsAu

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