The South China Sea is a critically important trade route of the world, with an estimated $5-trillion worth of goods passing through yearly, which amounts to about 30% of global maritime trade. In addition to that, there are vast oil and natural gas reserves under the sea, and it is the site of lucrative fishing grounds, providing the main source of animal protein for the densely populated southeast Asia.
For all of its resources and strategic value, the South China Sea is highly contentious. Several sovereign states all have varying claims over different sectors of the waterway and the islands therein, whereas non-claimant states advocate for the South China Sea to remain international waters.
These maritime and territorial disputes are complex and sprawling in their nature. To better grasp the greater picture of the situation, we’ve broken it down into a few sections.
The prime areas of contention in the South China Sea include the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. Each claimant nation wants something specific, and they all have their individual justifications for what they want. The main players in the territorial disputes have been China, Taiwan, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.
China depicts its claims to the South China Sea using the map of the nine-dash line, a vague demarcation line that was inspired by a December 1947 then-Republic of China (1912-1949) map with eleven segments. After the Communist Party of China formed the PRC, the claim was amended to the “nine-dash line” that we know today. The U-shape of it can be observed in Image 1 above.
Taiwan (ROC) also uses the 1947 map it as a basis for their own claim to the contested waters, because it was published before the PRC was established. Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba Island, is the largest isle of the Spratly group and it remains steadfastly in Taiwan’s control. As one of the world’s biggest seafood exporters, Taiwan’s interests in the region are connected to fishing and oil.
Vietnam’s claim over the Paracel and Spratly islands was first established in a White Paper issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1974, with historical evidence as a basis for the claims. It has been a vocal opponent of China’s historical claim over the South China Sea, asserting that China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s, whereas Vietnam had actively ruled over both the Paracel and the Spratly Islands since the 17th Century.
However, tensions between China and Vietnam have been de-escalating ahead of agreements to resolve their disputes. In April 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave an announcement that China and Vietnam are moving toward a settlement agreement on the status of their claims in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has historically cited its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim to the Scarborough Shoal, however its President Rodrigo Duterte has avoided aggressive rhetoric on the issue, saying that he “will not impose anything on China.”
This came after the July 2016 international arbitration that ruled China could not legally claim most of the South China Sea – including a rebuke of the nation’s manmade islands. Although China is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it refused to accept the court’s authority on this case.
Malaysia has claimed seven islands in the Spratly group, of which two are also claimed by Vietnam and one by the Philippines. Thus, it has occupied the remaining four and constructed mini-naval stations to reinforce its claim.
Brunei by contrast is sometimes referred to as a “silent claimant” of the South China Sea, however it first asserted rights shortly after gaining independence from Britain in 1984. Its principal interests revolve around the development of offshore oil and natural gas fields – both within its EEZ and outside of its territorial waters. Its claim is on Louisa Reef, which is on its continental shelf, however the Louisa Reef is also part of the Spratly islands, a feature claimed by both China and Vietnam.
Recently, Indonesia ramped up the territorial disputes by renaming the northernmost waters of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea to the North Natuna Sea, despite China’s claims to the area. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, suggested that the renaming of the waterway helped to make it “sound more Indonesian.” It has increasingly conducted aggressive posturing in the area, including a military buildup on nearby Natuna Islands and deployment of naval warships.
For decades, Indonesia’s official policy has maintained that it is not party to any territorial disputes with China on the South China Sea, yet in 2016, the two countries had three maritime skirmishes, including warning shots and a situation where Indonesian warships seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew.
China’s Manmade Islands
In recent years, China has been building various ports, runways, and radar facilities on manmade islands throughout the South China Sea. CSIS Satellite images from 2016 depict large anti-aircraft guns and weapons systems as well.
These man-made islands have been constructed by dredging sand on to reefs in an effort to boost China’s claim to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China had previously committed to not militarizing the islands, however the CSIS imagery suggests otherwise. Nonetheless, the PRC government maintains that the islands are for maritime safety and civilian purposes.
The Situation at Present
On April 11th, 2018, the Chinese navy began a 3-day drill near its main submarine base in what analysts described as a message to other nations in the area that it was capable of defending its territorial and maritime interests. This display came right as an American strike group, led by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, conducted its own exercises in the South China Sea. The United States maintains that the South China Sea is international water, and therefore the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea should determine sovereignty in the area.
These exercises additionally overlapped with a week-long series of live-fire drills involving the aircraft carrier Liaoning, near the venue for the BOAO Forum for Asia. On the sidelines of the forum, senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said that all the surrounding countries were concerned by the military exercises in the region. This area is significant because it has several underwater channels and straits that could allow China’s submarine fleet to break through the United States’ first and second island chain blockades. Although the location for these specific demonstrations was in a less sensitive area than the South China Sea, it nonetheless served as a means for China to illustrate its military might to the other claimants involved in the disputes.
PRC President Xi Jinping presided over the Chinese navy’s largest military display on April 12th, 2018. The state broadcaster, China Central Television, showed footage of Xi boarding the destroyer Changsha before sailing to an unspecified location in the South China Sea to watch the procession. China’s armed forces are in the middle of a modernization program, and the subsequent military buildup has seemingly unnerved its neighbors, particularly due to the increasing assertiveness on the territorial disputes of the South China Sea.
China intended on holding live-fire military drills in the Taiwan Straits on April 18th, however, it was reported that the drill scaled down in an effort to reduce tensions. The Taiwanese military similarly cancelled a scheduled cannon drill.
The probability of South China Sea disputes leading to an outbreak of hostilities is unlikely, however since China has continued to pursue its territorial and maritime claims, the potential for escalating small-scale skirmishes cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, any escalations in the trade corridor may have an impact on the global economy, particularly if sanctions become involved.
This article was written by Kristina Weber of Centry Ltd. For more content like this, follow @CentryLTD on Twitter!