Territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been reported for much of the 20th century. However, with the emergence of China as somewhat of a regional hegemony in the last few decades its security interests and sovereignty claims in the disputed sea have increased. As a result, regional tensions have mounted and these have undoubtedly undermined multilateral relations and served to heighten military/political tensions. This intractable dispute has also manifested internationally with increased Chinese and US militarisation in the area and an overarching power conflict between the two superpowers.
The dispute relates to two island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, claimed in part by a number of countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and China. China has claimed the largest portion of territory, based on a detail which is referred to as the 'nine-dashed line', a territory marker displayed on maps issued by the nationalist government in China as early as 1947. Vietnam contests this notion as the islands have been under Vietnamese administration since the 17th century and on the basis that China only laid claim to the islands in the 1940’s. The other claimants, namely the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all cite international law as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the basis of their case. UNCLOS contains clearly defined provisions regarding Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) and a state's right to territory therein. The Philippines and China also dispute the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China). Further compounding the dispute has been the discovery of hydrocarbon and oil reserves in the affected areas. The area is also a rich fishing ground and strategic maritime thoroughfare.
China’s perceived transgressions
Counter-claimants and the US allege that China-initiated military drills in the Spratlys and Paracels have served to undermine any resolution to the dispute as they have thwarted freedom of navigation in the region and fostered maritime stand-offs. The real concern for many of China’s rival claimants is rooted in its increasingly hostile military presence in the EEZ. Chinese provocations have also lead to tensions with other countries, including Vietnam. After China seized the unpopulated Triton Island and established an oil drilling platform on the island, Vietnamese coast guard vessels were stationed in the affected area. Following this strong unilateral action on the part of China, as a proxy, Vietnamese and Chinese fishing vessels were engaged in skirmishes near the Triton Island, which resulted in a number of casualties. China has also conducted live-fire military drills in the disputed territory often deploying warships, submarines and fighter jets to the area. In response, the US has positioned its P-8 Poseidon spy plane in Singapore, in a bid to monitor the territory. The US has also flown a B-52 strategic bomber over the Spratlys and deployed the USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles (legal territorial limits) of the Subi reefs. The US has assumed the role of defending freedom of navigation in the region; this is vital to securing trade routes. This elicited a strong response from China, prompted the deployment of Chinese patrol boats to these areas and resulted in numerous warnings to the US. Additionally, artificial islands are being constructed by China on coral reefs in the SCS. These islands, often in close proximity to counter-claimants, encompass port facilities, military buildings and even airstrips. This serves to bolster China’s foothold in the disputed territory and is actively viewed as a sign of military aggression.
Counter-claimants allege China-initiated expansion in the area, on historical grounds, is merely empire building. Furthermore, continued expansion would result in an unfair trade advantage for China, grant them unlimited access to resources, offer a larger buffer against alleged US naval intrusions and solidify its position as regional hegemon. Increased Chinese expansion has the potential to weaken all the counter-claimants in terms of their sovereignty and economic advantage. Most importantly, it would grant China authority over one of the most important trade routes in the world, which is in direct conflict with US foreign interests in the region.
It may appear that the majority of the disputes in which China is engaged currently have limited legal legitimacy and should be ceded to its opponents. However, China has mainly cited historical/cultural factors for the basis of its legitimacy. These factors include that China was the first country to discover, name and develop the SCS and exercise jurisdiction over the islands over 2,000 years ago. China’s reluctance to engage in international arbitration is rooted in the fact that international judicial processes or arbitration are subject to limitations which discount these aforementioned historical or cultural factors. On 29 October 2015, The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, rendered award on jurisdiction and admissibility of the SCS arbitration to the Philippines, at the unilateral request of the Philippines. Despite this ruling, China remains non-compliant, which is not in contravention of any international law, on the grounds that the Philippines, seeking unilateral arbitration (with US support) is an affront to its legitimate rights and opposes the general consensus established by countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China. As an alternative, China proposes settling the dispute through the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund, a Chinese initiative established in 2011, through negotiations and regional co-operation.
What has also served to heighten tensions in the region is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a US-Philippine naval agreement initiated in 2014 which enables the US to utilise the Subic Bay to operate facilities and deliver supplies/personnel for joint military exercises in the SCS. China views this as an act of hostility and reflective of US encroachment into the area through the establishment of alliances with counter-claimants in the region. On this basis, China views its military actions in the SCS as exercising its right to uphold its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests.
In light of several ongoing legal arbitrations, increased militarisation/encroachment, the murky/dubious nature of some of the claimants’ assertions and increased US intervention in the dispute, it has escalated and served to create greater hostility overall. China’s perceived provocations coupled with alleged US military/diplomatic transgressions have further impacted upon regional co-operation and fostered an atmosphere of intransigence with counter-claimants, unable to match China’s military might, resorting to building alliances with the US and appealing to international rule of law in a bid to undermine China’s assertions and legitimacy.
US interests lie in the prevention of further military tension and hostility in the Asia-Pacific region. The area is vital to the global economy and free trade, specifically for the US, where the transportation of resources and goods account for US$1.2 trillion in US trade annually. With regards to Sino-US relations, the protection of vital trade routes is of the utmost importance to the US and co-operation/consultation with China is essential for this to be achieved. In attempting to secure their economic interests through assuming an intermediary role, a harsh Chinese response has been provoked and further polarisation has occurred. It would seem that a more tactical US approach, built on co-operation with China, and its counter-claimants and in line with ASEAN principles, could potentially lead to propitious circumstances and better serve any negotiation process in the regional context.
Ultimately, the South China dispute is expected to become increasingly contested in 2016 but is unlikely to render any significant change in the international political or economic sphere. Although the risk of skirmishes and low-level conflict has increased considerably due to increased militarisation in the region, the probability of full-scale armed conflict remains low. Increased US naval drills and navigation exercises in the SCS are likely to undermine co-operation, relations and any negotiated settlement regarding these disputes between China and its counterparts for the foreseeable future.