Rival nations have grappled over territory in the South China Sea for decades, but tensions have steadily risen in recent years. China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims over the Paracel and Spratly islands. This is a dispute over territory and sovereignty which coincides with national, strategic and economic interests. China’s relative size and clout gives them a significant advantage over the other nations. China claims by far the largest portion of territory—an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles from its most southern province of Hainan. China claims that their right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation. In 1947, China issued a map detailing its claims that showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. However, those exact claims are mirrored by Taiwan. The United States (US) insists that they will not take sides in territorial disputes. However, with that being said, the US has sent numerous military ships and planes near disputed islands for “freedom of navigation” operations which is convenient for their national interest in the region. As a result, ironically both China and the US have accused each other of “militarising” the South China Sea.
Vietnam hotly disputes China’s historical account, stating that China never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century—and has the documents to prove it. The other major claimant in the area is the Philippines, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim to the islands. Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. There have been attempts to engage the nations in a peaceful resolution through global institutions like the United Nations and ASEAN, yet, tensions and disputes continue.
Attempts of Resolutions
Fears of continuing hostility and volatility in the area could have potentially serious global consequences. However, thus far, global and regional efforts to provide a response and resolution to this problem have been largely unsuccessful. China has preferred bilateral methods of negotiation and resolution rather than multilateral or institutional forms of conflict resolution. This comes down to the fact that in bilateral agreements and negotiations China will always have the upper hand against the other nation. But in a multilateral or institutional situation, China could easily be undermined, outnumbered and thus rendered powerless. The problem, then, continues to persist because the only nation (the US) that could politically, militarily and diplomatically reach a solution with China decided not to take sides in territorial disputes. As a point of clarification, just because the US has greater military capabilities than China, this does not mean that they should be used. Washington has long been turned to for military support but their political power and diplomatic relations could be a more effective and peaceful means of reaching a resolution.
On 20 July 2011, China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines which would help resolve the dispute. The agreement was described by China as “an important milestone document for cooperation among China and ASEAN countries.” Some of the early drafts acknowledged aspects such as “marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and combating transnational crime,” although the issue of oil and natural gas drilling remains unresolved.
In September 2011, India stirred these unresolved disputes further. An Indian state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, stated its overseas investment arm signed a three-year agreement with PetroVietnam for developing long-term co-operation in the oil sector, and accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in specified areas in the South China Sea. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, without referring to India by name, stated: “China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China’s stand is based on historical facts and international law. On the basis of this China is ready to engage in peaceful negotiations and friendly consultations to peacefully solve the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea area. We hope that the relevant countries respect China’s position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue. We hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve the bilateral disputes through bilateral channels.”
Due to the frustration and dependent nature of China’s co-operation in reaching a solution, the Philippines sought international arbitration instead. In 2013, the Philippines announced it would take China to an arbitration tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims. In July 2016, the tribunal backed the Philippines’s case, saying China had violated the Philippines’s sovereign rights. But as a result, China boycotted the proceedings, called the ruling “ill-founded”, and said that they would not be bound by it. As an aside; free access in the South China Sea would be in the US’s economic and geopolitical interests. In relation to the dispute, (at the time) Secretary Clinton voiced her support for fair access by reiterating that freedom of navigation and respect of international law is a matter of national interest to the United States. If the islands came under a nation’s sovereignty, exploration, navigation and patrolling would be prevented. Clinton’s comments were countered by China as “in effect an attack on China,” who warned the US against making the South China Sea an international issue or multilateral issue. Ironically, the disputes have reached the point where international action or legislation would be necessary to settle the situation.
For all of its military bluster, China’s interest in the South China Sea is an economic one. The US, UN and regional community need to develop a strategy that recognizes this and responds accordingly. Otherwise, UN rulings or US military exercises will not constrain or deter China from their position. The essence of disputes and tensions regarding the South China Sea can be reduced to two main reasons: natural resources and trading routes. Although largely uninhabited, the Paracels and the Spratlys have reserves of natural resources around them. There is an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea. The sea is also a major shipping route with 5.3 trillion in total annual trade passing through the South China Sea. Thus, control and sovereignty over these seemingly small and insignificant islands is a strategic decision and one of national interest. There have been attempts to collaborate on peaceful agreements between the various nations involved. Therefore, to claim this a military issue conceals the real motivations in the South China Sea.
Thus far, the US has devoted nearly all of its attention to military variables: How many bases to install in the Philippines? Whether and how soon to authorize arms sales to Vietnam? How best to position the US Seventh Fleet to reassure allies and deter Chinese provocations? America is equipped with arguably the most sophisticated war-fighting capability the modern world has ever known. However, the question is whether this system can learn new skills and adapt to the changing nature of conflicts. A new approach to these territorial disputes should be suited to the kind of contest China is waging—all or nothing.
I believe that the appropriate solution to the territorial disputes would be to place these islands under international jurisdiction, meaning that no nation would have claims to sovereignty over these islands. The South China Sea is of great importance to trade in the region which should not be affected, undermined or controlled by one nation, especially during times of tension. In recent years, the other nations, bar China, have shown interest in establishing a compromise for the objective of peace. Yet China has remained steadfast in their claims and not settling for anything less (despite their foreign ministry claiming that they only desire peace regarding the situation). Military action would not be a rational solution as it would create more conflict rather than solve it. Additionally, as China is the main reason progress is limited, an international jurisdiction would mean that no nation would be advantaged or disadvantaged by the decision. It is not a direct political attack on China; however, the presence of peacekeepers or something similar may be required by the islands to ensure that the resolution is being upheld. A positive of this solution is that the environment and marine life would be protected as well from the devastating effects of oil exploration and extraction.