The Australian Navy was confronted by Chinese military ships in the South China Sea earlier this month, as China continues to strengthen its position in the region. Australian warships were heading to Vietnam for a ‘good-will’ visit, and an unintentional meeting with the Chinese military occurred on the way. It was reported that the Chinese were conducting military training exercises in the region.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke of the encounter between the two countries, and stated that the Australian navy will continue to exercise its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as accorded by international law. This encounter comes amid growing tension in the region as China further exerts its power in the disputed waters.
China has declared a ‘nine-dash line,’ claiming the water projecting from its land territory into the South China Sea. The problem is that this line encroaches on the exclusive economic zones of several other states in the region, including Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Malaysia. As such, China’s claim is contested, because the five states are not willing to sacrifice any of their sea territory to China.
Regardless, China has continued to extend its stretch into the region by building several man-made islands that hold military and surveillance bases. The emergence of Chinese militarized land has created tension not only among the states in the region, but around the world. The South China Sea carries around $6.5 trillion AUD in global trade each year, which means every country that uses the route has an invested interest in the area. If China was to declare the thoroughfare as Chinese territory, issues arise about the ability of other states to use the region.
The problem not only surrounds global trade. Smaller and less powerful states are potentially bullied out of territory that is rightfully theirs. The South China Sea contains resources like fisheries, natural gas reserves, and oil fields. For some smaller states, access to these resources – especially fisheries – are an important part of their economy and the livelihood of their people. There has already been conflict between China and Vietnamese and Philippine fishing vessels, in which China has exerted its strength over these countries.
If China cuts off, or even limits access to these reserves, people in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines will struggle. Seafood is an important part of life in these coastal cities and towns, and impinging on such an essential resource could very easily lead to conflict. On a regional level, if China claims the territory that holds these resources, they are preventing their neighbours from using materials that would assist in the growth of their national economies.
Australia also has vested interest in the region, as the South China Sea is within striking distance of the Australian coastline. China’s recent developments especially the militarization of their islands – have placed Australia on alert. Tensions remain high in the region, and we wait to see what China will do next. Although conflicts over the territory have been relatively minor so far, it is concerning that China is acting without the consent of other states in the region. There is a pressing need for China to engage in talks and negotiate with the countries that hold disputed claims. The international community should facilitate this process and ensure that smaller and weaker states do not get pushed out of their own sea territory.
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