The situation in the South China Sea is becoming a matter of serious concern.
If nothing is done, it is highly likely that we could witness a military conflict in the area that could escalate into a superpower conflict.
The crux of the matter is the overlapping territorial claims of various nations in the South China Sea.
Background and Territorial Claims
China claims almost 80% of the whole of South China Sea, represented by its “nine-dash line”.
Among the ASEAN members, there are four claimant states namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Apart from Brunei, the three other ASEAN claimants have occupied several features in the Spratlys from which they claim exclusive economic zones.
Indonesia, while not a claimant state, has a vested interest due to its exclusive economic zone encompassing the Natuna Islands, located on the periphery of the South China Sea.
Significance of the South China Sea
The driver of tensions in the South China Sea is the significant importance of the region. It is a crucial maritime trade route that links Asia with Europe and Africa, accounting for a 21% of global trade translating to over US 3.37 trillion.
Additionally, the South China Sea is crucial to fishing resources. It supplies close to 10% of global fishing stocks. Fishing is a critical lifeline to many citizens of the littoral states.
The South China Sea is also thought to contain huge reserves of oil and gas. The US Energy Information Administration, for example, estimates reserves of 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and at least 11 billion barrels of oil.
For these reasons, the South China Sea is a vital zone for regional and global peace, prosperity, and stability.
Unresolved Complexities and Ongoing Challenges
However, due to the unresolved complex web of overlapping claims and different interpretations, the South China Sea is a contested zone.
Having failed at previous attempts to produce a code of conduct, amidst rising tensions, ASEAN and China issued a declaration in 2002 to re-double their efforts to finalise the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Despite repeated efforts, the Code of Conduct has remained elusive to date.
In the meantime, China strived to assert its control over the zone through activities, such as land reclamation and the establishment of structures on disputed features, inflaming tensions.
Legal Rulings and Their Implications
Frustrated and alarmed by China’s actions, the Philippines brought a case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague to declare China’s action as illegal.
The Court ruled in 2016 that China’s “nine dash line” claim has no legal basis under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Additionally, the court also ruled that the features in the Spratlys are not islands in the legal sense as they cannot independently support human life.
However, China refused to accept the ruling and has continued to muscle its way in the South China Sea leading to a downward spiral of diminishing trust with countries like Philippines and Vietnam shifting alignment towards the United States.
Several countries including the United States, the European Union, France, Japan, and Australia, have all expressed concerns regarding China’s actions.
Escalating Tensions and Heightened Regional Concerns
The heightened tensions have led to near skirmishes.
The most recent incident involves the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, where a Chinese Coast Guard vessel employed a water cannon to redirect a Philippines navy resupply vessel.
Other claimants are also taking measures of their own to assert their claims in the region. Vietnam, has been reported to aggressively constructing permanent structures on features it occupies within the Spratly Islands, an area that is also claimed by China.
This evolving situation is unsustainable and could potentially lead to conflict.
The South China Sea is a classic example of a predicament where no one single winner can take it all. Only a rules-based order can assure mutual peace and stability.
Certainly, this would take compromises and hard choices.
Urgent Need for Resolution
To avert possible conflict, it has been suggested that ASEAN should urgently adopt a Southeast Asian Archipelago Neutrality Framework (SEAANF).
As an initial step, at the forthcoming ASEAN Summit in September, ASEAN and China could announce the convening a group of international experts to explore the viability of neutrality in the South China Sea.
This group could include representatives from ASEAN, China, and the United Nations.
This approach could contribute to defusing tensions and provide space for finding common ground in this disputed maritime zone.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.