Explained: South China Sea Situation is critical for Global Stability


Recently, the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has issued his perceptive essay of Foreign Affairs cogently which spells out the dilemma that confronts Singapore and indeed the rest of the world in the Indo-Pacific, as the two most consequential powers of the world i.e. the United States (resident power) and China (the reality on the doorstep).

Background of South China Sea Dispute

  • The contested status of the territorial features in the sea are rooted in the region’s deep colonial history on one hand, and the legal regime of islands in accordance with international law on the other.
  • The geo-strategic importance of these features and the presence of rich natural resources around them have culminated in uneasy tensions in the South China Sea region between multiple states that claim sovereignty over the features.
  • The dispute has been fuelled by domestic politics and the rise of nationalism within certain claimant states.
  • The South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, is subject to several overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

Significance or Importance of South China Sea

  • It is a key commercial thoroughfare connecting Asia with Europe and Africa.
  • It is a sea bed of rich resources and conducts one third of global shipping, or a total of US$3.37 trillion of international trade.
  • About 80 per cent of China’s oil imports arrive via the Strait of Malacca, in Indonesia, and then sail across the South China Sea to reach China.
  • It is also believed to contain major reserves of natural resources, such as natural gas and oil.
  • The US Energy Information Administration estimated that the area contains at least 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  • It is also a key source of food for hundreds of millions of people as it accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s fisheries.

Role of United States in South China Sea Dispute

  • The US has wide-ranging security commitments in East Asia, and is allied with several of the countries bordering the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
  • The South China Sea is a vital trade route in the global supply chain as it is extensively used by American companies who produce goods in the region.
  • Although the US does not officially align with any of the claimants, it has conducted Freedom of Navigation operations, designed to challenge what Washington considers excessive claims and grant the free passage of commercial ships in its waters.

South China Sea Situation: Critical for India’s Security

  • South China Sea is not China’s sea but a global common.
  • It has also been an important sea-lane of communication since the very beginning and passage has been unimpeded over the centuries.
  • Indians have sailed these waters for well over 1,500 years and there is ample historical and archaeological proof of a continuous Indian trading presence from Kedah in Malaysia to Quanzhou in China.
  • There are nearly $200 billion of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea and thousands of our citizens study, work and invest in ASEAN, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
  • India has stakes in the peace and security of South China Sea region in common with others who reside there and freedom of navigation, as well as other normal activities with friendly countries, is essential for our economic well-being.

Challenges associated with South China Sea

  • The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia hold different, sometimes overlapping, territorial claims over the sea, based on various accounts of history and geography.
  • China has repeatedly criticised the US for acting “provocatively”, while it has started to defend its claims in a more assertive way in recent years.
  • Southeast Asian nations have traditionally rejected looking for a bilateral solution with China, the region’s main economic and military power.
  • The biggest challenge in the South China Sea has been managing China-American military and paramilitary competition to avoid exacerbating the security environment.
  • The tensions have heightened as parties to the upcoming Code of Conduct (COC) have mobilised to consolidate claims and de facto control over areas such as the Spratlys.

Territorial Claims of South China Sea

  • China claims more than 80 per cent, while Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
  • The Philippines asserts ownership of the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal, while Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands.
  • China‘s “nine-dash line” is a geographical marker used to assert its claim which stretches as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia.

Position of Stakeholders on South China Sea

  • ASEAN has promoted multilateral talks on disputed areas without settling the issue of sovereignty, and in 2002 joined with China in signing a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea that committed all parties to those territorial disputes to “reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and over flight above the South China Sea.
  • The EU has stressed the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and encouraged the parties to peacefully resolve disputes in accordance with international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • The Philippines has taken the step of bringing China before the Arbitral Tribunal under Article 287 and Annex VII under UNCLOS as it claimed that Chinese nine-dash line violates UNCLOS provision.

Future of South China Sea Dispute

  • new bilateral dialogue and cooperation mechanisms could be established to help prevent future crises and pave the way for dispute resolution.
  • The aforementioned Code of Conduct (COC) will help create a rules-based order in the South China Sea region.
  • The maritime cooperation is critical to China and ASEAN’s shared interests, including preserving peace in the region.
  • China and the US could enrich existing maritime confidence-building and crisis prevention mechanisms to avoid miscalculation and accidental collision.
  • In the long run, maintaining peace and stability requires collective efforts from regional powers, as well as all user states.

Way Forward

  • The settlement of territorial and maritime boundaries disputes will be profoundly complicated by historical, geographical and political considerations and despite tensions among claimants and extra-regional powers, there are still stabilising factors and areas of improvement that could prevent further escalation.
  • For China and ASEAN member states, deepening maritime cooperation will not only help built trust but also tackle common maritime threats.
  • It is fair to say that China and the ASEAN countries remain committed to the peace and stability of the South China Sea through concerted efforts in managing differences, enhancing mutual trust, advancing COC negotiations, and promoting maritime cooperation.
  • The regional countries and the international community should be aware of the challenges and disturbing factors facing the South China Sea region and should stay prepared for future incidents and unexpected crises.

Source: The Indian Express

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