MS Risk Blog

South China Sea Tensions and Territorial Disputes

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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.

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