Dr. Abdul Ruff
Several countries have supported the Chinese position on the South China Sea issue. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea — a vast tract of water through which a huge chunk of global shipping passes. It has bolstered its claim by building artificial islands including airstrips in the area, some of which are suitable for military use. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to harbour significant oil and gas deposits.
Not only is the South China Sea (SCS) a major shipping route but also a zone of high rich energy resources. Hence USA is also keen to intervene in the dispute. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims. Hence there is tension in the region.
The Chinese government says more than 40 countries have offered support for its position, the latest being the African nations of Sierra Leone and Kenya. And China expressed thanks on June 14 for the dozens of countries it says have offered support for its position on a case brought by the Philippines over Chinese claims in the South China Sea, saying they are speaking out to uphold justice.
The Philippines is contesting China’s claim to an area shown on its maps as a nine-dash line stretching deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia, covering hundreds of disputed islands and reefs.
Despite China’s protestations it has no threatening intent in the South China Sea, it has bolstered its military presence there with an ambitious land reclamation programme that includes building airstrips for military use.
China refuses to recognize the case and says all disputes should be resolved through bilateral talks. China has stepped up its rhetoric ahead of an expected ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippine case. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said certain unidentified countries had been trying to blacken China’s name over the South China Sea, confusing right for wrong and trying to control public opinion. “Once they’ve worked out the rights and wrongs and gotten the whole story, a fair few countries are willing to speak out from a sense of justice…We express appreciation and thanks for this. It shows that a just cause enjoys abundant support and people have a sense of natural justice,” Lu said. The Chinese government says a small number of countries wanted to blacken China’s name on this issue, they cannot be said to represent the international community.
Energy plus Zone
The South China Sea is dubbed by China as the “second Persian Sea.” The state-owned China Offshore Exploration Corp. planned to spend 200 billion RMB (US$30 billion) in the next 20 years to exploit oil in the region, with the estimated production of 25 million metric tons of crude oil and natural gas per annum, at a depth of 2000 meters within the next five years.
The SCS area may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits; however, the estimates are highly varied. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimate that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). However, other sources claim that the proven reserve of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)’s profile of the South China Sea region, a US Geological Survey estimate puts the region’s discovered and undiscovered oil reserves at 11 billion barrels, as opposed to a Chinese figure of 125 billion barrels. The same EIA report also points to the wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 190 trillion cubic feet to 500 trillion cubic feet, likely located in the contested Reed Bank”.
The Philippines began exploring the areas west of Palawan for oil in 1970. Exploration in the area began in Reed Bank/Table mount. In 1976, gas was discovered following the drilling of a well. However, China’s complaints halted the exploration. On 27 March 1984, the first Philippine oil company discovered an oil field off Palawan, which is an island province bordering the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. These oil fields supply 15% of annual oil consumption in the Philippines.
The nine-dotted line was originally an “eleven-dotted-line,” first indicated by the then Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1947, for its claims to the South China Sea. After, the Communist Party of China took over mainland China and formed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The line was adopted and revised to nine as endorsed by Zhou Enlai. The legacy of the nine-dotted line is viewed by some Chinese government officials, and by the Chinese military, as providing historical support for their claims to the South China Sea.
In the 1970s, however, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory. On 11 June 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the Spratly Islands (referred to therein as the Kalayaan Island Group) as Philippine territory.
The abundant fishing opportunities within the region are another motivation for the claim. In 1988, the South China Sea is believed to have accounted for 8% of world fishing catches, a figure that has grown since then. There have been many clashes in the Philippines with foreign fishing vessels (including China) in disputed areas. China believes that the value in fishing and oil from the sea has risen to a trillion dollars.
The area is also one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. In the 1980s, at least 270 merchant ships used the route] each day. Currently], more than half the tonnage of oil transported by sea passes through it, a figure rising steadily with the growth of Chinese consumption of oil. This traffic is three times greater than that passing through the Suez Canal and five times more than the Panama Canal.
As of 1996, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries asserted claims within the Chinese nine-dotted line The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect on 16 November 1994, resulted in more intense territorial disputes between the parties.
As of 2012, all of the Paracel Islands are under Chinese control.
Eight of the Spratly Islands are under Chinese control; Vietnamese troops control the greatest number of Spratly islands, 29. Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan] In 2012 the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam, while expressing concern over rising tension in the area, said that 50 per cent of its trade passes through the area and called for peaceful resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law.
On March 17, 2016, in accordance with Memorandum Circular No. 94 s. 2016, President Aquino created the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, to secure the State’s sovereignty and national territory and preserve marine wealth in its waters and exclusive economic zone, reserving use and enjoyment of the West Philippine Sea exclusively for Filipino citizens
The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Non-claimants want the South China Sea to remain as international waters, with the United States conducting “freedom of navigation” operations.
There are disputes concerning both the Spratly and the Paracel islands, as well as maritime, areas near to sea, boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin and elsewhere. There is a further dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands. The interests of different nations include acquiring fishing areas around the two archipelagos; the potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.
The Shangri-La Dialogue serves as the “Track One” exchange forum on security issues surrounding the Asia-Pacific region, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is the “Track Two” forum for dialogue on security issues.
In February 2016, President Obama initiated the US-ASEAN Summit at Sunny lands for closer engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea were a major topic, but its joint statement, the “Sunnylands Declaration” called for “respect of each nation’s sovereignty and for international law”. Analysts believe it indicates divisions within the group on how to respond to China’s maritime strategy.
China claims almost all of the energy-rich South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year. USA is major user of the sea route mainly for trade purposes.
China’s construction activities and military preparatory actions have drawn criticism from the USA. The United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute but says it has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
China questions American surveillance activities and other military activities over the South China Sea.
The United States and the European Union have called on China to respect the ruling from The Hague. The court has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before.
The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the South China Sea. This disagreement is exacerbated by the fact that the USA is not a member of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Nevertheless, the USA has stood by its maneuvers, claiming that “peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), is allowed under the convention. Additionally, a South China Sea free to access is in the USA’s economic and geopolitical interests. In relation to the dispute, the then Secretary Clinton voiced her support for fair access by reiterating that freedom of navigation and respect of international law is a matter of national interest to the United States Her comments were countered by China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as “in effect an attack on China,” who warned the USA against making the South China Sea an international issue or multilateral issue.
Clinton testified in support of congressional approval of the Law of the Sea Convention, which would strengthen US ability to support countries that oppose Chinese claims to certain islands in the area. On 29 May 2012, Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern over this development, stating that “non-claimant Association of South East Asian Nations countries and countries outside the region (USA) have adopted a position of not getting involved into territorial disputes. In July 2012, the US Senate passed resolution 524, initially sponsored by Senator John Kerry, stating the United States’ strong support for the 2002 declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea, reaffirms the US commitment to assist the nations of Southeast Asia to remain strong and independent, and supports enhanced operations by the USA armed forces in the Western Pacific. USA resents the Chinese domination in the region and wants India and many others to back it.
In 2014, the USA responded to China’s claims over the fishing grounds of other nations by saying that “China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims. The Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue. In 2014 and 2015, the United States continued freedom of navigation operations, including in the South China Sea. Sources closer to Pentagon have also said that the US administration is planning to deploy some naval assets within the 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. In response to this announcement, Beijing issued a strict warning and said that it would not allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters in the name of “Freedom of Navigation”.
On 27 October 2015, a US destroyer USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles reclaimed land in the Subi Reef as the first in a series of “Freedom of Navigation Operation”. This is the first time since 2012 that the USA has directly challenged. On 8–9 November 2015, two US B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the area of the Spratly Islands and were contacted by Chinese ground controllers but continued their mission undeterred.
China is deeply concerned about Indian naval presence and oil exploration effort in the region with tricky US backing.
On 22 July 2011, the INS Airavat, an Indian amphibious assault vessel on a visit to Vietnam, was reportedly contacted 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the disputed South China Sea by a party identifying itself as the Chinese Navy and stating that the ship was entering Chinese waters. But the INS Airavat proceeded on its onward journey as scheduled. India seeks freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law.
In September 2011, shortly after China and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea, India’s state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said that its overseas investment arm, ONGC Videsh Limited, had signed a three-year agreement with Petro Vietnam for developing long-term co-operation in the oil sector, and that it had accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea.
ASEAN leaders in China
Meanwhile, Countries in Southeast Asia have serious concerns over recent events in the disputed South China Sea, an unusually strongly worded communique issued by their foreign ministers in China said on June 14. In a rare diplomatic slap in the face for Beijing — issued on its own territory — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) offered a sharp rebuke over China’s actions in the waterway. It’s communique said without mentioning China by name that recent and ongoing developments have eroded their trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.
The ASEAN statement emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation, which may raise tensions in the South China Sea. “We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” “We articulated ASEAN’s commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the statement said.
The bloc’s finger-wagging, after a Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Kunming, comes as the region braces for a ruling by a UN tribunal on a claim brought by the Philippines against China. China does not recognize the arbitration and has reacted angrily to the Philippines’ legal efforts over the Beijing-controlled Scarborough Shoal, which sits just 230 kilometres off the main Philippine island of Luzon.
USA and regional powers are awaiting the official response to the tribunal court ruling so that they could react. But Beijing is firm in its stand.