SCS: Old battleground, new twist

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SCS: Old battleground, new twist

Sunday, 17 March 2024 | Makhan Saikia

SCS: Old battleground, new twist

The South China Sea has once again become a focal point of international attention following sudden clashes between coast guard vessels of the Philippines and China. As tensions rise, the involvement of global powers like the US and Japan adds further complexity to the situation, potentially pushing more nations to align against Beijing. Amid these escalating tensions, it becomes imperative for China to reconsider its assertive stance and respect the existing global order to avoid further international backlash

The South China Sea (SCS) has once again come into focus following sudden skirmishes between the coast guard vessels of the Philippines and China last week. The ongoing assertion by the Philippines of territorial claims over the Spratly Islands and China’s outright refusal to acknowledge these claims lie at the heart of the current crisis.

This dispute has deep historical roots, with China asserting its rights over the entire SCS, a claim that other countries involved simply reject. The contentious issue of control over sea waters and its resources has long strained relations between China and the other claimants.

Since 2009, during Hu Jintao’s presidency of China, the country has steadily intensified its efforts to solidify its position in the SCS, despite Hu’s advocacy for China’s “Peaceful Rise” Doctrine. In this endeavour, the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing devised a subtle strategy involving the use of its military and coast guard to surveil foreign vessels, explore and exploit resources in disputed islands, drawing the attention of the international media and SCS neighbouring countries. However, starting in 2013 with Xi Jinping assuming the presidency after Hu, Beijing escalated its activities by initiating the construction of artificial islands and stationing military and civilian personnel in various parts of the SCS. This aggressive expansion has increasingly posed a security threat to other claimants in the SCS.

They have all begun to question China’s extensive claims over the land parcels and adjacent waters in the SCS. As China has asserted its claim through frequent naval patrols and island-building in the Paracels and Spratlys, other nations have sought support from the US and Japan to deploy their military and naval vessels in the area. Interestingly, the US, without directly participating in the conflict, has started sending military ships and aircraft near the disputed islands under the guise of ‘freedom of navigation’ operations. Meanwhile, Japan, a close ally of the US in the region, although having no direct claim in the SCS, regularly provides ships and military equipment to countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. The involvement of global powers is heightening tensions in the regional power balance, which may compel China to further militarise the SCS.

In addition to China, seven countries consistently claim resources and water bodies in the SCS. These countries include Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Taiwan. However, Chinese claims and territorial occupation of the sea are the most prominent in the region. This greatly concerns all other nations involved in the conflict, posing one of the most serious security threats to neighbouring nations in the Western Pacific area.

More than the concerns about troublesome neighbours, the US is deeply troubled by the increasing Chinese claims and security buildup in the SCS. The SCS, along with the East China Sea (ECS), is an area where US-China strategic interests constantly clash. This strategic competition encompasses various issues in the SCS, including but not limited to:

- US security commitments to the Western Pacific, encompassing treaty obligations to the Philippines

- Maintenance and enhancement of the US-led security architecture in the Western Pacific

- Sustaining a regional balance of power favourable to the US and its allies

- Defending the principle of peaceful dispute resolution

- Maintaining the universal doctrine of freedom of navigation, also known as freedom of the seas

These factors compel Washington to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region than the conflict-laden West Asia.

Currently, the US aims to restrict China from engaging in additional base construction, deploying more military equipment to the islands, initiating new constructions at Scarborough Shoal, declaring straight baselines and Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ), taking actions over the Philippines to either operate in or vacate the Spratly Islands, and granting Filipino fishermen access to water bodies surrounding Scarborough and the Spratly Islands.

Additionally, Washington clearly desires Beijing to adhere to and abide by the verdict issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on July 12, 2016, which was established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This verdict, which China outrightly rejects, was fully in favor of the Philippines based on a case lodged by the latter against the former in 2013. The Philippines brought the case against China for its claims and activities in the SCS. However, China did not respect the verdict of the international court because it was not prepared to accept a decision against its interests. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the SCS would not be affected by this ruling.

The tribunal challenged China’s extensive claims over the SCS and dismissed its ‘Nine-dash line’ thesis, which claimed sovereignty over 90 percent of the SCS. The tribunal also rejected China’s historic rights over the resources of the SCS, stating that there was no legal basis for such claims.

Finally, the court declared a large part of the SCS as Neutral International Waters (NIW) or exclusive economic zones of other nations.

This ruling was nonetheless a significant setback for Xi’s regime and other members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) who viewed the entire SCS as the exclusive territorial zones of the country, inviolable by any other nation.

China reputedly claims to have historic rights and claims over the SCS. Despite the legally binding nature of this historic ruling on China, it chose not to comply. Instead, the Communist leadership in Beijing dismissed it as ‘ill-founded’ and ‘naturally null and void’. This saga clearly illustrates China’s determination to assert its expansive territorial claims over the SCS, regardless of the provisions of the UNCLOS. Such an attitude from Beijing strongly indicates its aggressive pursuit of sovereignty and complete disregard for the rules-based international order. While Beijing advocates for a rules-based international order, it seeks to establish one on its own terms and conditions rather than adhering to the existing framework.

Why are all these countries actively involved in the SCS? Located in the Western Pacific Ocean, the SCS is the largest marginal sea in the region. The Paracels and the Spratlys are two chains of islands claimed by many countries in the region, particularly all of them in their entirety by China through its ‘Nine-dash Line’ Thesis. The significance of the SCS lies in its status as a major international shipping lane. According to estimates by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), over 21 per cent of international trade, amounting to 3.37 trillion dollars, passes through these sea lanes.

Also, the entire SCS encompasses more than 250 islands, reefs, sandbars, etc, which are rich reservoirs of minerals and other sea-borne resources. Experts also suggest that the sea is believed to contain nearly 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

However, these Paracels and Spratlys are largely uninhabited. Also, the SCS oversees the operation of more than half of the world’s fishing vessels, and these fishing reserves serve as a potential source of livelihood for millions across the region. Thus, all these countries surrounding the SCS are fiercely asserting their claims over it. Beyond this, their regional and geopolitical interests are clearly evident in the clashes and differences of opinion that have surfaced so far.

It is not surprising to many strategic experts that China does not want to be subordinate to or follow the dictates of the existing global liberal order led by the US and the rest of the West.

Thus, China, especially under Xi, has consistently advocated for a multipolar world and a new world order in which Beijing will establish (or has already set) the terms and conditions. At no point does it want to be dominated by the West, especially by the US. It unequivocally demands equal terms of engagement and treatment in all international forums, on par with Western nations.

China’s territorial claims, both on land and in neighbouring water bodies, seem to have no bounds; they are continually on the rise. Its imperial ambitions have become increasingly apparent in recent years.

However, by turning the South China Sea into another flashpoint, alongside Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, China is not only threatening American interests in the Asia-Pacific but also challenging the security architecture of Western allies in the region. This may lead to more global powers aligning against Beijing.

Xi and his regime should be cautious not to overextend their reach, as this could drive more nations to align with the US. China must learn to respect the existing global order before others feel compelled to rally behind an Asian order led by Beijing.

(The writer is currently president of the Global Research Foundation)

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