For the past half century, South China Sea has been an area of tensions and territorial disputes. In 1974, the Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops. In 1988, the same two countries clashed in the Spratlys, with Vietnam again coming off worse, losing about 60 sailors. Ever since, incidents keep happening and have increased in recent year: China’s claims over the islands have become stronger in the past years. The involvement of the United States and the uprising of other regional nations show this conflict is an issue about strength, power and international politics.
What is the argument about?
This dispute is about territory and sovereignty over South China Sea’s islands: the Paracel and the Spratly Islands. Alongside the fully-fledged islands, there are dozens of atolls and sandbanks also disputed. The two main reasons to these conflicts are economic and strategic.
From the economic point of view, the main stake is the fisheries ressources in this part of the sea. Besides meeting the food needs of local populations, it is also long and intensively exploited for export and is currently in a situation of over-exploitation and overfishing.
The other economic issue is a rising one, due to the energetic crisis: the low deposit of oil and gas wihtin the South China Sea. Even though this area is almost uninhabited and uninhabitable, the sovereignty allows the exploitation of the ressources within the exculsive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982. Thus, gas, oil and maritime ressources are on of the reason of the territorial dispute.
The South China Sea has also two strategic interests. First it is an important passage for international navigation and freedom of navigation is a contentious issue, especially between the US and China over the right of U.S. military vessels to operate in China’s EEZ. Another reason is linked to the strenghtening of nationalist discourse and identity issues. Indeed, in this region, the conflit for the islands represent the conflict between the countries to ensure a stronger position on the regional chessboard.
Who claims what ?
Ever since the last ten years, tensions increased in this region. The most important claimers are China, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia. Shows of strength continually occur in this region and have increased in the last few years.
China, with the largest claim in all the South China Sea keeps occupying some islands in this region along with building artificial islands. The last incident of January 2016 occurred when China landed a plane in an island both claimed by China and Vietnam. Both claims the territory based on historical sovereignty.
The Philippines based its claim on geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands. The Scarborough Shoal (see map below), known as Huangyan Island in China, is a little more than 100 miles from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.
Malaysia is also claiming some islands of the Spratlys but most of the incident in the last decade involved China, Vietnam, Philippines and the United States.
Even though the U.S are not claiming any of the islands, it has an important role in the conflict and many of the incidents occuring in this region are between China and the U.S. Supporting rival countries such as the Philipphines or Vietnam, the U.S has also a military presence in the sea and wants to ensure the freedom of navigation. In reality, the U.S presence is much more about showing strength against China which accelerates its coercitive actions within the region.
Towards resolution: between diplomacy and coercion
For the past ten years, many diplomatic talks failed to solve the territorial disputes in this region. The Asian association might have been one solution to this problem: for economic and regional reasons, China is afraid of a united front of others Asian nation about this issue. But as 2012 and 2015 summits illustrated, ASEAN never came with a common declaration about the South China Sea disputes. China has always warned the Asian states about discussing this subject during the summits and thus, the ASEAN does not seem strong enough to resolve this issue.
The U.S confirms their wish to see this issue solved diplomatically by a settlement. However, they will maintain strength against China as long as tensions remain in the region. They have to types of actions: to ensure direct military present and to bolster capabilities of regional actors. Indeed, for the past years, they have increased military help to Philippines and Vietnam.
The latest change in this dispute happened in October 2015 and will shape the future of this region: the Philippines seized The Hague Court. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has declared jurisdiction in certain territorial claims by the Philippines against China on South China Sea disputed areas. China has boycotted the proceedings and denies all authority to the Court in this case but juridiction remains and according to the UNCLOS, the decision will have to be applied by both parties.
In South East Asia, the vast majority of piracy incidents, and commensurately the level of law enforcement response and international attention, currently occur around the Straits of Malacca, in the numerous islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. However, Bangladesh has seen a continuing, and significant, level of piracy as well, though the most serious incidents are primarily targeted against local fishermen and similar. This has included two extremely serious incidents within the past month. Of particular concern is the pirate’s methodology – kidnap for ransom and a high degree of violence is extremely common.
Incidents against foreign vessels in Bangladesh take much the same form as in the rest of South East Asia. This involves opportunistic armed robbery against ships, almost always berthed in the Chittagong anchorage. Robbers, sometimes armed, board ships and attempt to steal stores, cargo and valuables. They commonly flee when confronted by crewmembers. The overall rate of piracy against foreign vessels however remains relatively low, with a small number of incidents each month, particularly when compared with Indonesia, by far the most afflicted country in the region. Rates have remained relatively stable and even seen a slight decrease in the past few years. A high degree of security awareness on behalf of law enforcement and shipping is widely credited with helping keep the situation under control.
It is attacks against local fishermen and trawlers in the Bay of Bengal that are a potentially a much more concerning phenomenon. There are numerous active pirate gangs that operate in Bangladeshi waters, particularly around the Sundarbans mangrove forest which was home to at least ten separate pirate gangs late last year. Other regions throughout the country, including along rivers far from the coast, are also plagued by pirate activity.
As opposed to the opportunistic ‘smash-and-grab’ robberies that target foreign vessels in port, piracy targeting local fishermen tends to involve kidnap for ransom as standard. The most common period for attacks is between April and August, the fishing season. The scale of this activity is also dramatic. In addition to regular demands for protection money, often from numerous different gangs, attacks are commonplace. According to the local District Fishing Trawlers Owners Association (DFTOA), between January 2011 and November 2012 over 1000 fishing trawlers were attacked, with thousands of fishermen taken hostage for various periods. This reportedly led to ransom payments totally $1.28 million. In August 2012, over 60 fishermen were taken hostage in a single incident, while the first 3 months of this year reportedly saw 90 attacks in one coastal region alone. Last month, (August, 2013) in two separate incidents over 30 fishermen were taken hostage. Attacks of this scale are standard, and occur monthly.
The law enforcement response to these activities is of varying effectiveness. Last year, a large co-ordinated operation between the Coast Guard and Navy led to the release of nearly 40 hostages, while police operations in the past weeks in response to recent incidents saw several pirates killed in shootouts and secured the release of two-thirds of the hostages. However, the long term effectiveness of this law enforcement activity remains doubtful – many locals report that the pirates simply remain dormant and re-emerge after the operations. Alternatively, they flee across the border into India, where a lack of regional co-operation makes it difficult to apprehend them. The Bangladeshi navy and coast guard are weak – the coast guard has only 11 boats, most nearly 3 decades old and several unusable during the monsoon season. The effect on the economy can be huge – with coastal fishing contributing 30% of the nation’s total catch, during 2012-2013 this had dropped from 108’000 metric tons to 39’000.
Particularly concerning is the high level of violence that occurs in these incidents. Pirates are usually armed, and beatings of captive fishermen are a common occurrence. Murder of hostages is also frequent, with many killed every year either during or after attacks. In a single incident in April of this year, 31 fishermen were tied up and tossed overboard to drown after being robbed by pirates.
While currently this activity does not commonly target international vessels, the trend is particularly concerning. With growing rates of low-level, violent hostage taking and piracy throughout the Bay of Bengal, combined with a lower level of international attention and a weaker law enforcement presence than in other regions of South East Asia, the phenomenon has the potential to evolve into one of substantially greater threat. Some analysts believe Bangladeshi pirates will become a threat to global shipping within the next two years. While currently the threat to international vessels does still remain relatively low, a high level of security awareness should be maintained by all vessels in the Bay of Bengal.