The South China Sea (SCS)– one of the most strategically critical maritime territories globally- has become an apple of discord between the People’s Republic of China and its neighbours, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. On the one hand, China and Taiwan claim to be the region’s owners on a historical nine-dash line basis, covering more than eighty per cent of the SCS; however, other countries’ claims are Under the Law of the Sea Convention UNCLOS, on the other hand. According to the UNCLOS Act Article:55, all states have a right of 200 nautical miles of “exclusive economic zone (EEZ)” to exploit the sea and seabed resources, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants. Nonetheless, despite being one of the significant endorsers of UNCLOS, China has started ramping up its military presence and accelerating construction on disputed desert islands. Ironically, the SCS- with multiple natural resources, lucrative fishing opportunities, and a major shipping route across the world- is equally important for the superpower- the US, regardless of its considerable distance of 10,000 kilometres from China. Therefore, the United States has also stepped up its military existence in the region, including freedom of navigation operations to challenge China’s hegemony in islands or resource zones. For this purpose, it has established QUAD- Quadrilateral Security Dialogue- with Japan, India, and Australia to ensure freedom of navigation and a liberal trading system. Moreover, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also trying to negotiate the thorny dispute. It is believed that if the matter would not settled peacefully, it would lead the world to a bare-knuckle war.
Geography of South China Sea
The South China Sea encloses an area of roughly 3,500,000 square kilometres of the West Pacific Ocean. The SCS is bordered on the north by China, northeast by Taiwan, east by the Philippines, south by Brunei and Malaysia, and west by Asia mainland, including Vietnam. Additionally, The sea is also home to almost 200 identified uninhabited islands and reefs, with most of them distributed in the two main groups: Paracels Islands and the Spratly Islands.
Significance of South China Sea
The South China Sea is an Almighty dollar for many of its largest economies due to its significant geostrategic importance. Since thirty per cent of the world trade and eighty per cent of China’s trade passes through it via the Malacca strait- a waterway connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea- the SCS is considered the third-largest trade route in the world. Moreover, among natural resources, around eleven billion barrels of oil and 190 Trillion cubic feet of natural gas are known to exist in the disputed waters. Additionally, marine life exists in abundance in the nutrient-rich zone. Hence, it is also a lucrative fishing ground making the surrounding countries stand out in the international fish market. Therefore, the matter is not essential for the adjoining counties only; it is seeking significant attention worldwide.
An escarpment of sand-the multiple islands- that occasionally breaks the vast expanse of the SCS may look diminutive in existence but forms the core of a fierce territorial dispute among six primary claimants: Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The claimants also clash over their rights in the nearby seabed and its resources. On the one hand, China and Taiwan claim to be the region’s owners on a historical nine-dash line basis, covering more than eighty per cent of the SCS; however, other countries’ claims are Under the Law of the Sea Convention UNCLOS, on the other hand. According to the UNCLOS Act Article:55, all states have a right of 200 nautical miles of “exclusive economic zone (EEZ)” to exploit the sea and seabed resources, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants. Nonetheless, despite being one of the significant endorsers of UNCLOS, China has started ramping up its military presence and accelerating construction on disputed desert islands- the Spratly Islands.
Concerns of the United States in conflict
Besides the claimant countries, the SCS issue has also created tensions between the US and China. This is because the United States has been involved so much in the dispute due to its various economic, political, and security concerns.
- According to a rough estimate, since the South China Sea is a major transit route for commercial maritime traffic, the United States’ trade to and from South Asia through the SCS is around $ eighty-three billion. Therefore, the unstable environment of the South China Sea can result in a significant loss for the United States.
- Additionally, the ever-rising disputes over the ownership of its many small islands, reefs, atolls, and rocks among China and several nearby Southeast Asian states- including one of the United States allies, the Philippines- are generating tensions in the region that could be a security threat for the united states indirectly. Thus, to maintain the security of its allies, the US is obliged to support the regional alliance system and local powers who are concerned about China’s intentions.
- The economic prosperity of China, sustained over thirty years- has had the inevitable participation in transforming its geopolitical standing in South Asia, if not the world. Since the US, being the sole hegemon of the contemporary world order, is already facing Rising China’s Dilemma, China’s growing influence in the South China Sea can have a detrimental impact on the political position of the United States over the world.
Ways to settle the dispute
Since most of the countries involved in the SCS dispute are reluctant to resolve the sovereignty issue through table talks, a permanent peace is unlikely to achieve for the time being. For this purpose, various international organizations have also been having a tough row to settle the dispute through peaceful means. For instance, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)- the region’s primary intergovernmental organization- has issued a critical document, ensuring that the maritime conflicts within the SCS do not escalate into armed conflict. However, ASEAN cannot force its members to seek peaceful solutions to such disputes. Given that ASEAN cannot resolve the battle over the SCS alone, the US, Japan, India, and Australia have collectively established a QUAD- Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to ensure free navigation and trade and counter China’s military-economic rise in the disputed water.
The SCS is no longer just a regional issue; it has become an international concern due to excessive geostrategic significance. Although China’s claim is considered unlawful, none of the claimant countries has been known to obey the UNCLOS law completely. Moreover, Asia lacks authority organizations like the European Union, NATO, etc., which can settle grievances and keep the proxy war from becoming a real one. However, if the issue is not resolved through negotiations, excessive military involvement may lead the arguable dispute to a catastrophic armed war.
The conflicts in the South China Sea’s troubled waters between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei are escalating over time. However, the unnecessary involvement of the United States has turned the situation into a bilateral dispute between China and the United States. China, on the one hand, has built artificial islands in the SCS and established the trade route in the Arabian Sea via Gwadar Port of Pakistan, on the other hand, to overpower the involvement of the United States from Asia and Africa. Contrarily, the United States has devised a containment strategy for China, as it had one for the USSR during Cold War, by making allies from Asia-including India. To sum up, the SCS is now a contest of supremacy between two alternative geopolitical paradigms than the territorial dispute of the claimant countries. The outcome of that contest would profoundly influence, if not shape, the 21st-century world.
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