The Disputed Islands
The 3.5 million sq. km marine geopolitical hotbed, SCS, first makes us revisit the historical records of the World war 2 era, specially the San Francisco Treaty(1951). This peace treaty, as a quid pro quo arrangement, scrapped Japan’s formidable position as an imperial power and granted rightful remunerations to the civilians & non-combatants, who suffered in Japan during the Second World War. But, you cannot find peace if prosperous islands remain unclaimed. The treaty was a blunder as far as drawing up a requisition plan of the disputed islands, located in the South China Sea, is concerned.
The islands of the South China Sea can be grouped into two disputed island chains. The Paracel Islands are flocked in the North-western corner of the sea, currently controlled by China. Whereas, the Spratly Islands are located in the south-eastern corner. The ongoing territorial scuffle regarding “ownership” of the Spratly Islands, is between China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei, .
Adding on to the complex claims and counter claims, all the countries are accusing each other of militarising the South China Sea which can have serious geopolitical repercussions. China’s insidious, aggressive & non-transparent expansionism, with tools like OBOR initiative & absolute disregard for UNCLOS(1982), has led to its intensified maritime presence and rapid construction of military infrastructure like outposts, runways, support buildings, loading piers, and communications facilities on artificial islands. It has deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems as well. Regular visitor of these waters is the Type 094 ballistic missile submarine of PLA Navy, which tries to make a diplomatic statement, every time it enters the disputed waters. This has also led to multi-fold enhancement of degradation of the delicate oceanic ecosystem. Having said that, the USA’s recent terminology altercations in its security architecture, which zeroes down to containment of China & empowerment of India, with use of phrases like “Free & open Indo-Pacific”, has led to more cacophony for Machiavellian Chinese dragon.
Why is the South China Sea highly contested?
The abundance of natural resources like Natural gas, shale gas, oil, Polymetallic Nodules(PMNs) in the South China Sea, makes it one of the most important, economically lucrative & politically sensitive geopolitical theatre where China flexes it’s muscles. More than half of the world’s fishing vessels are in the Sea, and millions of people depend on these waters for their food and livelihood & therefore contributing to the bordering nation state’s economic growth. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that 60 percent of maritime trade passes through Asia, with the South China Sea handling an estimated one-third of global shipping. Malaccan dilemma is part of the same intricate dynamic.
But the entire fiasco which often leads to continued simmering tensions to boil over, occasionally, is for what’s ‘below the surface’ (i.e.) oil and natural gas. A report issued in 2013 by the US Energy Information Administration confirmed a total of 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, in contrast to higher Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) estimates in the range of 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The proven and anticipated reserves vary largely on account of the absence of region-wide seismic verification procedures. The tech driven future will see brutal competition for resource exploitation, more so because of cutting edge deep-sea technologies with the ability to drill even on an angle. Therefore, all the countries are demanding a share, based on historical data and international law & juxtaposing China’s aspirations as it will undoubtedly head towards a monopolistic regime as well as paradoxical state of affairs with dishevelled Southeast Asia. But like a habitual offender, the Chinese establishment keeps reiterating in the same archaic non-sequitur way of denial.
What’s the claim game?
There are several historical, political and economic reasons behind these countries’ territorial claims over the Spratly Islands. About 80 percent of China’s oil imports arrive via the Strait of Malacca, which is a chokepoint in the Indonesian waters, and then sail across the South China Sea to reach China, which makes the sea an integral part of trade. Furthermore, China claims almost all the islands in the sea, based on historical evidence. In the 1950s, China’s nine-dash line was drafted which stretches as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia. This nine-dash line or “U-shaped line” claim was China’s, as well as Taiwan’s initial agenda. Recently, Taiwan has kept it’s distance from the controversy, in order to gain diplomatic support in the region. The government in Taiwan must have realized that it’s significant role in the South China Sea has been further marginalized by overindulgence.
Vietnam fiercely disputes China’s historical stand, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracel and the Spratly islands since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it. Vietnam’s interests in the South China Sea may be divided into traditional national security interests and the broader category of human security. Another major claimant in the area is the Philippines, which argues for its claim on the basis of geographical proximity. The sea has an abundance of diverse marine ecosystems and Philippines has had the most success and experience in maintaining marine ecosystems, plus the islands are well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippines has almost 10% of the world’s marine protected areas (MPAs).
Malaysia’s and Brunei’s claims are relatively limited in comparison to the other claimant states. They claim specific nautical miles in the South China Sea, that they say, fall within their EEZs, as defined by UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
How does the South China Sea Dispute affect India?
Until 2014 it seemed as if India had missed the boat but our Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi has turned the tables with China. With his calculated mentioning of the South China Sea Dispute at the ASEAN Summit and his joint statements made with several countries like USA, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam, India has portrayed it’s close ties with ASEAN. India’s “Act East policy” bolsters economic and defence ties with Southeast Asian countries to a new dimension. Many in the ASEAN, given the bona fide nature of Indian diplomacy, want India to play a significant role in the conflict and help them achieve their national interests as well as regional peace, to which China is working diametrically opposite.
India initially got bullied by China, despite not being directly involved in the contest, as it kept appeasing China. This led to China, manoeuvring India and the flooding of Indian markets with Chinese exports & successive trade deficit of 48 billion USD. But, the current government is adopting an “offensive defensive” strategy to counter China and has got involved in the South China Sea dispute. India is not directly involved in the conflict but it definitely has economic, maritime and strategic interests.
India’s 55 % of trade passes through the Strait of Malacca which opens into the South China Sea. If China manages to dominate the region, it will disturb the global trade practices as per WTO, and India will lose its international trade route. Therefore, freedom of passage for maritime trade through the South China Sea is necessary(UNCLOS 1982). Furthermore, any military conflict in the South China Sea will have its effect on the Indian Ocean region. It may jeopardize the regional security architecture and India’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries. Hence, the South China Sea is extremely important to India from a strategic point of view.
Today, when the entire world is doomed by an invisible enemy and people are battling for survival, China is adopting an opportunist approach, and absolutely discarding the fact that it was Chinese negligence which landed us all in the middle of this pandemic based doldrums. Such acts make us conclude that the Chinese can never have our benefit of doubt. The PLA lately carried out air and naval drills along its south-eastern coast. It conducted a seismic survey inside Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Not ending at that, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank near the Paracel Islands after collision with a China Coast Guard vessel. Recently, China also established two districts to administer islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea. India being a harbinger of peace is a quintessential case of a country which has unshakable diplomatic morality, commitment to international peace and ground based action to pursue these ideals.
By Kanupriya B Jaju