The Battle of the South China Sea

South China Sea … it is a marginal sea on the pacific ocean which is an important economic and strategic sub region of Indo-Pacific. Location wise, it touches south China in the north and hence gets the name. Other than that, it also touches borders of Indonesia, Philippines, Borneo, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan on various sides. It is not just a commercial gateway for a significant portion of world’s merchant shipping but also is site of several complex territorial disputes leading to tensions across the Indo-Pacific region.

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Importance of the Sea

It is a sea of utmost economic and geostrategic importance as one third of world’s maritime trade worth $3 Trillion passes through it. It contains huge oil and natural gas reserves beneath it (10-20 billion barrels of oil and 200-300 trillion cubic feet of gas). Apart from that, it also contains a rich source of Fisheries (accounting for 10% of world’s fisheries stock) which is essential for the food security of millions over south east Asia in unregulated and overfishing grounds.The geographical features present in the area are Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, the Natuna Islands and Scarborough Shoal.

The Hunting Battleground

Other than having so many qualities or instead we can say that … because of having so many qualities it has turned into a battleground. Military drills by American and Chinese troops is a daily affair now and all this is over territorial dispute. Not just these two, the claims of China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have been contradicting each other for decades now as everyone has its own definition regarding the location of South China Sea. Each definition is based on some historical and geographical accounts and overlaps over the other. So, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has established a legal framework in a 200 nautical mile area to balance the exploitation of marine resources, called EXCLUSIVE ECONOMIC ZONES (EEZ).

The History of the Islands

The archipelago is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs located in the SCS. While China says that its claim over SCS can be traced back to 14th century while Vietnam says that time to be 15th century. Actually, the traces of these islands are present in the 16th century record texts of all Explorers (Britishers, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Spanish) who went to the East. The tensions actually got heated up in 20th century by colonial powers of French-Indochina. These tensions further exaggerated in 1954 between China and Vietnam leading to a war in 1974 between them, after which both war and control of islands went into China’s hand. But Vietnam bounced back in 1982 again with the claim over the islands. Then in 1999 TAIWAN enters the game and since then, these 3 have been desperate to prove their stake and claim over it.

The Clash of the Titans

From as back as 1968, these nations are engaged in one military operation or the other in the area. Though the islands are uninhabited but it is speculated that they contain huge reserves of untapped natural resources. The speculations are based on the fact that oil was discovered beneath the neighbouring islands. Though, US in a report denied the existence of any resources down there but maybe none of these countries want to listen to it. There have been multiple instances where the counties got a step ahead in clash. In 2010, CHINA put up an annual summer ban on the Water, the move which was highly resisted by others. INDONESIA once blew up and sank the illegal fishing boats seized over by its authorities. Then in 2014, CHINA deployed drilling rigs at the Paracel Islands which led to high confrontation and protest from the Vietnamese side. Amongst all this, slowly China started reclaiming land in the area by expanding the area and then building military establishment over them. Although, the ruling by International tribunal HAGUE claims that CHINA doesn’t have any legal right over the sea, but the report was completely rubbished down by CHINA.

CHINA’s rise on the Occasion

Well … it should be no surprise that amongst these countries it is CHINA who is most eager to prove its mettle over the area by claiming almost whole of the Sea as its own (It claims 80% of the waterway via its Nine-Dash Line). It has stepped up its military aggression by creating artificial islands and setting up research centers in the area for economic and military purpose. Even during this COVID-19 Pandemic, the birth place of CORONAVIRUS was busy increasing its presence in the SCS. Beijing through its Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Civil Affairs unilaterally named 80 islands between SASHA Islands and PARACEL Islands as its own, drawing huge criticism from the neighbouring countries. Last time such an big operation came up in in 1983, when 287 geographical features were renames by China.

If we go into the clash deeply, there are ‘Fronts’ even here. While China and Vietnam are into a throat cutting competition, Philippines is a pro-China country in the game. Though, once Philippine fishing boat was struck down by Chinese vessel but still Philippine also rejected the Hague ruling. While, on the other hand Vietnam and China’s clash has been intensifying. From striking down its fishing boat to claiming 80 more Vietnamese geographical locations and setting two administrative districts under Beijing control, over it. If this much was not enough, the latest victim coming up is MALAYSIA, after China said that Kuala Lumpur doesn’t have any right to seek the establishment of its continental shelf in the northern part of the SCS, after which Malaysia took the resolution to the UN.

Role of ASEAN and USA in the Region

In recent times, the controversy got heated up when both US President TRUMP and whole of ASEAN criticized China’s behavior using strong words. ASEAN has always held an united front in the matter and tried to make China understand in the tough language that how its recent activities of land reclamation, have eroded trust and may undermine peace and stability. It also made it clear that all the activities will be carried out in accordance to the 1982 UNCLOS. Other than them, Australia also holds significant interest in this area and conducts airborne surveillance and naval practice in the area which is of course not liked by China.

When the opponent is CHINA how can USA restrain itself from entering the ring. Not just the area is very crucial for USA from its production and business point of view but it also has allies over there in the name of Vietnam, Philippines and Singapore. USA has conducted Freedom of Navigation operations on a regular basis (85 times in 2019) including the first joint maritime military exercise between USA and ASEAN. It also rejected all of Beijing’s claim beyond the 12-nautical-mile territorial area around the Spratly Islands. While on one hand it signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Vietnam, China was heard saying that Beijing would safeguard Singapore by working with it. Also, right after China claiming those 80 islands US sent an assault ship and a guided missile cruiser the Islands. But, since USA has no territorial claims in SCS, regional observers worry that its presence through continuous naval forces will only heighten tensions.

a Battle in the South China Sea is Truly Unstoppable - YouTube

Conclusion : The Saga Continues

So … we can see the interesting yet tensed situation over the South China Sea. How having TOO many qualities may lead to you turning into a Battlefield. While, on one hand China is not leaving any stone unturned for exerting its dominance and control over the area and on the other hand, USA also enters the ring to self satisfy its ego and show China that it can’t enjoy so much power that very easily. All the rest small countries are also fighting with the aim of ‘looting’ out whatever they can get from this area. The future course of action will decide where this BATTLE goes, whether any one country will be able to win it completely (which I don’t think will happen) or will every country will get a small piece of share of the immense resources or the situation continues in the dilemmic situation for many coming years.



References :

  1. Explained: What’s behind diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea? Written by Neha Banka, Apr 29, 2020
  2. Explainer | Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute? SCMP Reporter, Feb 16th 2019


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