Currently, among the most disputed topics in the world, in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, the governments of six countries claim that they are the rightful owner of Paracel and Spratly islands, and among them, China has been the most aggressive one. The Chinese government claims an enormous area under what is known as the “nine-dash line” and Beijing maintains that the area has been under Chinese rule since “ancient times.”
China has been building military bases on small islands and also expanding the area of islands artificially. The major interest of China is to gain full control and dominance over the South China Sea which was first claimed by Chinese people in 1949 through nine-dash lines that this sea belongs to China including the Spratly and Paracel islands. This, China’s dream of controlling the South China Sea, will shape the dynamics of world politics and might lead to new world order due to opposition from ASEAN member countries and the USA.
In today’s business world, around 90% of international trade depends upon sea routes for shipping goods, and around 45% of those shipments are being transported through the South China Sea (SCS) by connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, thus, indirectly connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa with each other. The Strait of Malacca, along with the Lombok Strait and Sunda strait are all connected with SCS and responsible for oil and LNG imports by major countries such as China, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and others from Gulf countries.
It is estimated that around 15 million barrels each day are transported through the Strait of Malacca, making it the second busiest strait after Strait of Hormuz in terms of oil transportation with respect to volume. The economy of China depends upon the oil import in which 80% of the oil transported through the Strait of Malacca and then through SCS to China, which means that full control and easy access through this strait is the justification behind economic prosperity of the Chinese nation.
Apart from the strategic importance of the SCS, this region is also blessed with large deposits of natural resources beneath the sea. It has been estimated by exploration teams that more than 11 billion barrels of crude oil are present under the ocean floor. However, most optimistically, this figure can reach up to more than 200 billion barrels of oil reserves while this region is also believed to be capable of possessing a huge volume of natural gas reserves which is estimated to be more than 190 trillion cubic feet under the seabed.
These discoveries in SCS are piquing curiosity among surrounding nations in their claim over territorial spaces and in the fight for their interests. The importance of these reserves is increasing day-by-day as existing reserves are depleting and demand is growing exponentially. However, aside from oil and gas reserves, this region is also gifted with the one-third of the total marine biodiversity of the Earth, which means that substantial revenue can also be generated through fishing alone.
Despite the military and paramilitary advancement as well as intense fishing which have resulted in grave damages to the ecology of the region, this sea is still capable of producing enough protein source which can satisfy the whole continent’s appetite for seafood.
The SCS dispute has a long history. In 1877, Great Britain claimed the two largest islands of the Spratly group, namely Spratly and Amboyna Cay. There was no claimant of those at that time, thus there was no conflict. Post that, France, in 1930-33, claimed Paracel and Spratly, and their objective behind claiming the islands was to prevent a growing-Japan from taking strategic and militaristic advantage of the SCS.
Britain stayed silent and they neither opposed nor gave up the claim. Despite France’s claim over those islands, Japan went ahead and declared its ownership over the islands. Moreover, finally, Japan was successful in expelling France. Japan exclusively controlled SCS from 1942-45. Their control ended when Japan lost the Second Sino-Japan War in 1945. In 1947, China marked its presence in Paracel and Spratly’s, especially on Itu Abu and Woody Island. In 1948 the Chinese government published a map with a dotted U-shape line covering almost 90% of SCS.
From the Han dynasty to modern China, the Chinese people believe that the SCS, as well as Spratly and Paracel islands, solely belongs to them. The Chinese government proposed the area of a nine-dashed line which they claim is their territory, comprising of almost whole SCS.
Rationally, China is situated in a location where it always faces discomfort to move its ships and cargoes between the group of islands such as Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda at its eastern side. While similarly, it also deals with uneasiness regarding shipments through its north-eastern region as this is also locked by other groups of archipelagos such as Tsushima, Osumi, and Tsugaru which are in Japan’s control.
As China is considered to be one of the fastest-growing economies, it needs such sea passages that are unregulated and unrestricted by other sovereign states. In this regard, SCS is the lifeline for the future of China to become a superpower. China firmly stands upon its stance on the SCS dispute by acting upon its policy of “three no’s”: no multiparty negotiations, no specification of claims, and no participation of external powers in the matter.
China’s stance on the SCS issue is taking its toll on the relationship between regional players, and mostly on ASEAN member-countries, which have indistinguishably become divided into two groups over this matter. The five-member countries, namely Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia have serious concerns with China over its claimed territory.
However, other countries such as Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos are seemingly avoiding the situation due to the risk of losing a considerable amount of investments and trade from China. Any adventurism from any side could jeopardise the cooperation between China and ASEAN.
In this point of view, the member countries are still unsettled upon a unified stance on SCS dispute, that is why each country is dealing with Beijing on its own. However, the ASEAN countries unanimously agreed on the resolution of the SCS dispute through table talks.
The United States of America (USA) has one clear agenda regarding the SCS dispute, which is to establish military and political balance while maintaining the existence of free shipping lanes so that businesses aren’t compromised in the region. The USA always sends its naval fleet to the SCS waters in order to ensure the freedom of navigation.
However, this agenda is irritating Beijing, which is clearly confronting China’s claim over SCS. The presence of US navy in the Pacific Ocean and involvement of the US government in regional matters directly posing threats and creating concerns among the Chinese leadership, who think that this is a plan to encircle of China through US allies, i.e. South Korea and Japan on the north side and Singapore on its south.
However, the USA has major concerns over the militarisation of the People’s Liberation Army of China in SCS, which can be dangerous for the whole region. In reply to the Chinese prowess of militarisation, Pentagon had decided to withdraw its invitation for China to take participation in international naval drills of 2018 at Pacific Rim.
The ratification and confirmation of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by China in 1996 had indirectly strengthened its own claim for maritime rights in SCS. On this point, it seems like China is using tactics to delay the settlement of the issue. Simultaneously, China is taking an expansive approach to spread and show its military might in SCS, a strategy to prevent the other claimants from strengthening their own maritime rights.
At the same time, China has been preventing any other exploration programs in search of hydrocarbons in which China is not involved. More importantly, China has been forming the number of artificial islands with modern defense systems such as surface-to-air missile systems, which is an alarming situation for the region and the world.