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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The South China Sea: A Brewing Cauldron of Geopolitical Tensions

The South China Sea (SCS) is a vital artery for the global economy, teeming with marine life and vast reserves of untapped oil and natural gas. This abundance, coupled with its strategic location connecting Asian economies to global markets, makes the SCS a coveted resource and a hotbed for conflict. The South China Sea has recently emerged as a potential flashpoint of conflict among Southeast Asian nations. It also presents a lucrative opportunity for China to project its power in the region and potentially emerge as a superpower.

In recent years, China’s increased efforts at reclaiming the land in the South China Sea by increasing the size of islands or creating artificial islands. There have also been militarization and infrastructure development efforts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, with China having several outposts in both regions. The Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, has also been militarized by deploying fighter jets, missiles, and radar systems. (Center For Preventive Action, 2004)

The Core of the Dispute: Resources and International Law
Being rich in its reserves of untapped oil and natural gas, the South China Sea has emerged as the primary area of competition for control over resources among the Southeast Asian nations, particularly China, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The main legal dispute in the South China Sea, however, is between China and the Philippines over the second Thomas shoal in the Spratly Islands. (Center For Preventive Action, 2004) The main bone of contention is China’s encroachment into the Exclusive Economic Zones [EEZ] of the neighbouring countries’ sovereign maritime territory. This prevents these countries from conducting maritime activities and exploring the reserves that this vast sea offers.

In 2016, a case was brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague by the Philippines against China’s encroachment in its EEZ and several other counts. The court ruled in the prosecution’s favour. Despite being one of the signatories that enabled the establishment of the tribunal, China refuses to accept the court’s judgment and continues with its expansionist policies in the region to date.

 China also contests foreign military and intelligence activities in its EEZ. As per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], countries are permitted to navigate the EEZ without any prior information about military activities.

Geopolitical Implications
The United States, France and the United Kingdom are among the few that have important political, security, and economic interests tied to the region. It is also an important player in maintaining sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation. The Chinese expansion has threatened important maritime passages that facilitate trade and naval movement.

The assertive expansionist policies of China pose a threat not only to the United States but also to India, China’s immediate neighbour. The relations between India and China have been strained for several years, on the grounds of border disputes. With its growth in the region, China may become more assertive in infringing the territorial sovereignty of India, threatening the outbreak of a conflict between the long-standing adversaries.

For the United States, the alarm remains of China becoming the next superpower and having major control over the economic and geopolitical landscape. It also raises concerns over increased competition among Southeast Asian nations for resources and control over major trade and maritime routes. The failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes diplomatically could undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilising arms buildups.

The Taiwan Factor
Contained within the nine-dash line, China’s sweeping territorial claim casts a long shadow over Southeast Asia. The line cuts directly across the maritime claims of several nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. These countries have Established Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) whose outer limits extend for 200 nautical miles from their coasts thus vesting exclusive rights to resources within them. The nine-dash line violates these EEZs thereby significantly cutting off fishing grounds and potential undersea resources such as oil and gas. Consequently, this acts as an impediment to economic development in these countries in South East Asia while at the same time raising concerns about their long term food security. Moreover, by deploying military installations on disputed islands in the area and engaging in other assertive actions aimed at asserting its geopolitical dominance there-in like constructing military installations on disputed islands; China threatens freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. As an essential shipping lane that conveys important amounts of global trade, any disruption could cause catastrophic effects on all regional economies.

Moreover, it conflicts directly with Taiwan sovereignty when it comes to China’s nine-dash line. Besides taking Taiwan wholly under its control, it covers other islets around it which complicates further already tense relationship between China and Taiwan . While China believes that Taiwan is a province that has rebelled, Taiwan on its part considers itself an independent country. For instance, in 1971 the Republic of China lost its seat to the People’s Republic in the United Nations. In this framework peace was established between these two countries in 1992. However, it appears that nothing could be further from the truth given China’s aggressive approach in South China Sea which threatens to dash all hopes for lasting peace. This might encourage Beijing to become more dominant and try to subdue Taiwan, making it lose what it has fought so hard for – independence. With a shift from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity, US now defends Taiwan against any attack as part of their policies. Thus, this raises fears of an armed conflict between America and China with devastating effects to both economies and international politics at large.

The geopolitical ramifications of China’s actions in the SCS are extensive. The possibility of military war, a challenge to the international legal order, and resource competitiveness all pose serious threats to regional and global security. Navigating this difficult scenario necessitates a precise balance of respecting international law, controlling competition, and promoting regional collaboration. Finding a peaceful and permanent settlement would require ongoing diplomatic efforts, adherence to the rule of law, and acceptance of the legitimate interests of all stakeholders concerned. The future of the SCS will have a significant impact on regional security architecture and the overall trajectory of the global order in the twenty-first century.

Center For Preventive Action. (2004, April 30). Retrieved from Global Conflict Tracker: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/territorial-disputes-south-china-sea

Center For Preventive Action. (2004, April). Global Conflict Tracker.

Center For Preventive Action. (2024, February 09). Retrieved from Global Conflict Tracker: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/confrontation-over-taiwan

Authored by Angel Chindalia

RLA Research Intern

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