MS Risk Blog

Maritime Border Issues in the East and South China Seas

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There is a saying, good fences make good neighbours. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to build fences on water and the neighbours of the littoral states of the East and South China Seas are definitely not the best neighbours. There are at least eight countries in the region stretching from Japan and the Korean Peninsula to the North to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to the South, with countries in between like China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. These countries have several economic and other interests which are overlapping each other, which indicates they hopefully have the intention to settle their disputes through negotiations. The Seas are rich in hydrocarbons and natural gas and have also become the busiest maritime routes in the last fifty years, supplying the raw material demand of China, Singapore and Japan and transporting the manufactured goods of factories of China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

The growing economic power of China and its maritime presence is met with growing assertiveness from neighbours like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The three main disputed regions are the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, the Paracel Islands and the Spratley Islands.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are causing tension between Japan and China. They are located north of the island of Taiwan, between China and Japan. They are composed of five uninhabited islets, three of them purchased by Japan from a private owner in 2012. The surrounding waters are rich in fish and almost certainly have huge deposits of oil and gas deep down.

The Paracels are off the coast of Vietnam and to the south of the island Hainan, belonging to China. The islands have been occupied by French Indochina in 1932 and 1974 and recently China have built an airfield and a harbour on the islands. The area is estimated to be a great fishing area and the sea ground is full of natural resources.

The Spratley Islands consist of more than a hundred reefs and islets on a 3.1 square miles territory, east from the Philippine island of Palawan. The territory is rich in fishing grounds and oil and gas deposits. The islands are claimed by China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Several of the islands are occupied by the claimants.

The resources and the fishing grounds are not the only reason these islets, rocks and reefs are disputed. Having sovereignty over these grounds would mean that the maritime traffic of the area can be controlled and monitored by the owner of the islands. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) littoral states can consider a 12 nautical mile (little more than 22kms) zone from their shores their territorial waters, but regarding the resource rich area, the 200 nautical miles (more than 370kms) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) makes these waters even more enticing. The EEZ gives rights to the littoral state to explore and use resources below the surface.

Due to the fact that there are thousands of ships crossing the contested waters, a multilateral framework is more than necessary. Although all of the littoral states have agreed upon multilateral risk reduction and confidence-building measures in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, none have implemented its trust-building proposals or adhered to its provisions. Sadly, China prefers to settle its border issues bilaterally, yet it does not mean it will keep itself to the stand of a court. In July 2016 a tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines in a dispute which was dismissed by China saying it had no binding force.

The constantly increasing military spending of the littoral states is not a sign of the parties planning to settle their disputes around the negotiating table, yet their long-term interests would dictate the countries to find a peaceful solution for their conflicts.