Conflicting interests and rising tension in the South China Sea

By Yağmur Erşan

Rising tension in the South China Sea has recently come to constitute the most critical risk of conflict in Asia. Seeing that this contested maritime region is of both political and economic importance, it is not only China and the littoral states of the region that are now vested in the fate of the South China Sea, so is the US. While China claims “historical” sovereignty over nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, other countries oppose China’s territorial assertions in the context of international law. Due to their limited capacities when compared with those of China, littoral states such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have found themselves drawn closer to the US in order to balance China. Pursuing an active policy towards the region, the US has frequently acted in opposition to China. As a result of the sovereignty race, growing nationalism and increasing mistrust have added to the rising tension in the region. Although a physical conflict has not yet been experienced, as the relevant actors size one another up, it can be definitively said that the waters are warming in the South China Sea.

The disagreement between China and the US

China, seeing its supremacy in the South China Sea as one of its most vital interests, is unyielding in its conservative foreign policy in the region. Besides claiming sovereignty rights in the region, Beijing does not hesitate to take unconventional policy measures to enforce its position. In this sense, China increases its military presence in the region on the one hand while strengthening its naval power on the other. Moreover, China’s position as a global power continues to rise in parallel with its assumption of an aggressive attitude in the South China Sea, thus stoking the concerns of both the region’s littoral states and the US. Furthered by the limited capacity of the region’s littoral states to stand up to China, all these developments have paved the way for the US to play a more critical role in the shaping of the region’s balances.

The US’s position in the region rests on five primary principles: peaceful resolution of disputes, continuation of peace and stability in the region, ensuring the freedom of navigation in international waters, adoption of the principle of neutrality in sovereignty disputes, and respecting international norms and principles. A major characteristic of the region disputes, the US and the region’s littoral states call for China to behave in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to UNCLOS, littoral states enjoy full sovereignty over the seas and continental shelves expanding 12 nautical miles from their national shores, furthermore, they also enjoy certain economic rights to Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which can be expanded to 200 nautical miles off their shores. However, the area claimed by China spans far beyond these borders. Indeed, China recently even tried to expand its territorial claims, and its corresponding nautical borders, by building artificial islands. This practice creates an unconventional picture in the implementation of international law of sea. Thus, within the framework of current legal norms, China’s claims have no legal provision.

From time to time, this policy pursued by China increases tensions between China and the US. Most recently, the US sent one of its guided-missile destroyers, the USS Lassen, to patrol within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly (Nansha) Islands on 27 October 2015, thus hoping to send a message to China. However, to counter the US’s maneuver, China immediately sent its warships to the region, further escalating tensions. Moreover, in the beginning of November 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited the USS Theodor Roosevelt, a US aircraft carrier located in the South China Sea, in a symbolic act which was interpreted as emphasizing the US’s balancing role in the region. Additionally, after this visit, Ash Carter stated in a speech in California that the policies followed by Russia and China threaten the balances of the international system. These comments are considered by some to be among the most severe statements issued by the US after the Cold War.

Following the employment of such rhetoric on the part of the US, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin stated that the US is increasing its military presence in the region under the veil of freedom of navigation and subjecting the sovereignty and security of the countries in the region to unnecessary risk. Although China reiterates its dissatisfaction at every turn, the US continues to grant political, economic and most importantly military support to the other littoral countries of the region. However, such a policy contradicts one of the US’s major principles guiding its engagement in the region, namely, the adoption of neutrality in the relevant sovereignty disputes.

The relations between China and other littoral states

That the aggressive policies pursued by China in the region disturb all regional countries is indisputable. However, it is difficult to say that these countries have engaged in full cooperation and coordination in the face of China.

While Vietnam and the Philippines strictly oppose China’s efforts to establish de facto supremacy in the region, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar assume a more abstentious attitude as they do not wish to come into direct conflict with China. On the other end of the spectrum, Malaysia has recently grown relatively close to China. Therefore, the tension between China on the one hand and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other is the most visible. This dynamic can be seen in the Philippines’ unilateral initiation of arbitration against China and the case’s acceptance by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration. Following this development, Beijing said “the decision of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration is not binding for us”, therewith clearly displaying its position. The Philippines expects that the Court’s decision will be finalized in 2016 and that it will recognize the geographical bodies claimed by China as rocks and reefs, not islands. Such would be important because, according to UNCLOS, rocks and reefs, which are not suitable for residence and are void of economic operating systems, do not allow for the formation of EEZs in their maritime environs. Therefore, if the Court decides in such a manner, it would not be possible for China to claim rights to the extensive amount of maritime territory in the region that would be entailed by the establishment of EEZs, or at least China would be in a disadvantageous position from a judicial perspective and thus face legal and diplomatic limits in the international system. Aware of this fact, China carries out regular military exercises in the South China Sea to highlight its naval and aerial supremacy in the region.

The economic advantages of the region, along with their risks

The South China Sea is not only a site of political advantage, it also houses important economic potential. Extending from Singapore and the Malacca Strait in its south to the Taiwan Strait in its north, the South China Sea constitutes a region of crucial importance in terms of its potential energy reserves, its location at the center of various regional trade routes and its vast and diverse fish populations.

China’s claims to the South China Sea are predicated upon the ‘nine-dash line’ that was declared on a map published by the then Republic of China in 1947. However, today the vast maritime region encompassed by this demarcation also includes the established EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Therefore, the fate of these resources within the territory claimed by China should actually be negotiated among all of the affected littoral states. However, China’s unilateral claims to the entirety of the region preclude the possibility of these states sharing the Sea’s energy reserves and fisheries.

Although it is thought that the region might host rich energy reserves, exploratory efforts have not been conducted transparently in contested regions due to the current tensions. This paves the way for the emergence of myriad scenarios with regard to the energy potential of the region. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the region houses 11 billion barrels of oil and 5.4 trillion cubic meters (190tcf) of natural gas. However, according to the 2012 estimations of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the region is host to 125 billion barrels of oil and 14.2 trillion cubic meters (500tcf) of natural gas. The huge discrepancy between these estimations has clearly led to widespread speculation. While China shows that it aims to acquire dominance over the potential energy resources by drilling in the region, other littoral states such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have been producing oil and natural gas from the offshore reserves long before tensions erupted. Here, these resources are just as vital for a China, whose energy consumption is expected to rise in the near and distant future, as it is for the regional economies, which have invested for years in the technological infrastructure to develop these offshore reserves.

The South China Sea is also one of the most important trade routes in the world, and this is particularly true for the energy trade. Tankers coming from Africa and the Middle East pass through the Malacca Strait and pass over the South China Sea en route to the many major Asian energy importing countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. It can be argued that this is the most preferable route from the west as it is the shortest way to reach Asian countries. According to the EIA’s 2013 data, one third of the world’s oil trade and more than half of the LNG trade are carried out over the South China Sea. Moreover, the South China Sea is also crucial in terms of intra-regional trade. Therefore, considering the trajectory of economic growth rates and the energy demands of Asian countries, the strategic importance of the region is only expected to rise.

Importantly, ways of life in the South China Sea largely revolve around fishing. 10 percent of the world’s fish come from this region. Considering the scale of this billion dollars sector, fishery concerns in the region could come to pose certain problems in the near future when it comes to food security. As can easily be surmised, the most crucial problem in this sense stems from the region’s ambiguous maritime borders, as is made evident in China’s frequent disruptions of Vietnamese fishermen’s activities. Such a state of affairs can fall into further disarray if China comes to use its military instruments in the coming future in defense of its claims.

To sum up, China continues to manufacture artificial islands in the South China Sea while simultaneously exhibiting shows of strength with its recently developed military technology by way of frequent military exercises. Such behavior negatively affects its relations with both the US and other littoral countries of the South China Sea. Nonetheless, signals coming from the US clearly indicate that Washington does not intend to withdraw from the region. Indeed, with the increasing security demands voiced by regional countries due to their limited capacities to stand up to China, it seems that US’s military and economic presence in the region may increase in the near future.

* The original article was published in Analist monthly journal’s December issue in Turkish language.


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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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