SOUTH CHINA SEA: Territorial Claims and Disputes

Book Summary by Hitendra Boradey, Research Intern, PIC

South China Sea: Territorial Claims and Disputes has chapters authored by 17 scholars from various universities who elaborate on the South China Sea (SCS) region, its importance in terms of economy, trade, energy, and the conflicts in the region, particularly the competing territorial claims involving powerful nations, littoral states, and the many small islands.

It is no wonder that with its rich resources, overlapping economic zones and significance as a trade route for movement of goods from the east to the west of the globe, the region has attracted global attention. Nations in this region, including China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, remain vigilant to protect their national sovereign territory and respective economic zones, often leading to disputes and tensions, presenting constant challenges for all parties concerned.

China, being a major developing economy, has great interest in the SCS, particularly because of the region’s abundant resources. It also explains Beijing’s increasing assertiveness by staking claim to territories in the SCS through introducing new maritime laws on grounds of territorial sovereignty and international law. China created a u-shaped nine-dash line, laying claim over the Spratly, Paracel and other islands in the SCS. By and large, the claims over the region by the respective littoral states have been on the basis of their history. For instance, the French relinquished control over the Spratly and Paracel islands to Vietnam in 1950 but the latter does not have complete control over it.

After China, ASEAN nations are major stakeholders in the SCS region. They have time and again stressed upon cooperative measures and self-restraint. To protect their national interests, ASEAN members have called for collectively, through multilateral cooperative measures, reducing tensions in the SCS region. But China has been effectively denting the ASEAN unity by sticking to the bilateral forum, which brings in opacity within the ASEAN. The result of this is that Beijing has been successful in creating ambiguity within the ASEAN.

China, the other littoral states, and a number of sovereign islands in the SCS region are party to the disputes filed in the UN court, citing violations of UNCLOS. China’s assertive stance in the region has escalated the disputes from low-level bilateral tensions to big power-small neighbour disputes. The scholars in the book argue that the SCS region is of strategic and political importance because of it being a major route for trade activities, which ultimately influences the economic cycles of many regions. Hence, the claims over territories in the SCS are crucial in terms of safeguarding freedom of navigation, safe sea lanes and communication, and preventing a major hegemonic power rising in the region.

Along with China and the ASEAN nations, Taiwan and Japan are also major stakeholders in the China Sea. Taiwan is a de facto nation state but de jure a part of the Republic of China, which asserts its claims in the region on the basis of history, geography, and international law. Beijing opposes Taiwan’s representation in international multilateral security dialogues on development strategies in the SCS and seeks to raze the ‘One China Two Systems’ concept articulated by the USA vis-à-vis the China-Taiwan conflict. Since 1990, Taiwan shifted its position from being soft, sensitive, receptive and responsive, to taking serious note of the conflicting territorial claims in the SCS, while at the same time adhering to the policy of multilateral cooperation for development, peace, co-operation, and protecting the marine environment and ecology in the SCS region.

The divide of the China Sea into South and East China Sea is of significance for China vis-à-vis trade, energy deposits, and resources. Even as the overlapping territorial claims have made SCS littoral nations to adopt aggressive policies, the region is important from the strategic, military point of view.

On its part, China is unrolling its policies in the region by developing its military build-up that is qualitatively adequate and quantitively significant to deter any military aggression by its rivals. This has resulted in diplomatic logjam and military standoffs. And, interestingly, while the conflicts in the SCS are brought to international courts under the UNCLOS, the verdicts are overruled by the stakeholders in the region.

The book further explains the geopolitical significance of the SCS due to its large energy deposits that is also fuelling the ongoing conflicts. With such large energy reserves in the region, a matter that assumes significance is also energy security, which in turn is crucial for nations to secure their national security and economy.  Therefore, the SCS region, with all its trade activities, commerce, energy and hydrocarbon reserves and marine resources, is beset with territorial and sovereignty claims and disputes. But there is also a lack of multilateral cooperation to resolve them.