Daily Current Affairs – 15th January, 2016DEVENDRA VISHWAKARMA
Storm on the South China Sea
The Asia-Pacific region witnessed intense diplomatic upheavals over the South China Sea issue last year and it continues this year as well.
South China Sea Geography:
- Geographically, the South China Sea plays a significant role in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.
- The South China Sea is bordered by China, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
- Their significant economic growth over the last 20 years, as well as activity in other Asian economies including Japan and South Korea, has contributed to a large portion of the world’s commercial merchant shipping passing through these waters, from which it continues on through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombak Straits.
- The major island and reef formations in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Natuna Islands and the Scarborough Reef.
- The defining characteristic of the South China Sea and a significant source of tensions in the region are the competing legal claims of territorial sovereignty over its islands.
- Legal and territorial disputes persist, primarily over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as the Scarborough Shoal.
- Spratlys, have been reportedly occupied by claimants, which consist of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia.
- The Paracel Islands are the subject of overlapping claims from China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
- Another major dispute is over the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan.
China’s claim in the region:
- China makes the largest claim in the South China Sea, and bases it on the ‘nine-dash line’ map that was published by the Chinese Ministry of the Interior in 1947.
- The map served as the basis for the Declaration on China’s Territorial Sea, which was made by the Chinese Government in 1958 and laid territorial claim to a majority of the islands in the South China Sea.
- Additionally, in 2009 China submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations Secretary-General, asserting its sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea which was presented with a map of the ‘nine-dash line’.
- The legality of the nine-dash line map, which China charges is based on historical evidence, is disputed by other South China Sea territorial claimants and under the UNCLOS Treaty.
A case of UNCLOS treaty:
- The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is an international agreement which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.
If china claims rights over islands in South China Sea based on historic reasons, other countries claim rights as per UNCLOS.
- The disputed islands fall in the exclusive economic zone of the claimants.
Why does China want to control the South China Sea?
- Control of the South China Sea would allow China to dominate a major trade route through which most of its imported oil flows.
- It would also allow China to disrupt, or threaten to disrupt, trade shipments to all countries in East and Southeast Asia — as well as deny access to foreign military forces, particularly the United States.
- The floor of the South China Sea may contain massive oil and natural gas reserves. Sovereignty over the region could give China a level of energy security and independence far beyond what it currently possesses.
What is the issue now?
- Island building in the South China Sea, and construction on existing islands, has been going on for decades, primarily by Vietnam and the Philippines, which have claimed 21 and eight islands, respectively.
- Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines have all stationed military forces on at least some of their islands, but Vietnam, in accordance with UNCLOS regulation, has not put troops on what it calls “floating islands” — those constructed on submerged sandbars, reefs and other land masses.
- China has reportedly constructed more new island surface than all other nations have constructed throughout history.
- It might use some of these artificial islands for military purposes by building airstrips and long-range radar systems.
What is the U.S. response to the dispute?
- The United States had virtually no response to previous building by Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, but has vigorously opposed China’s efforts.
- The U.S. Navy has operated continuously in the region since World War Two.
- The United States has used its aircraft and naval vessels to assert freedom of navigation in the region.
- Beyond freedom of navigation missions, the United States is focused on strengthening regional allies.
- To do so, it has helped boost its allies’ intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities, and provide them with updated military hardware to counter China’s technical advantages in both quantity and quality.
- Japan, in close coordination with the United States, is to supply military hardware to the Philippines and Vietnam.