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South China Sea: Conflict Insight

Published On October 27, 2014 | Far East

Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region. At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.t. Its geographical seating is of the essence in the game of interests played between the major participants – the Chinese, Japanese and everyone in between. It is part of the Pacific Ocean and stretches over 3,500,000 square kilometers encompassing a large number of states and uninhabited islands, starting from north with China (The People’s Republic of China – Macau and Hong Kong), Taiwan (The Republic of China), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. The positioning of the Straits of Taiwan, Singapore and Malacca make it a highly traversed shipping route, reflecting one third of the world’s shipping transit.

Being as it may, not only the very much populated territories are of political and economic interest, but also the uninhabited islands and patches of land in the South China Sea are constantly battled over for sovereignty. There are over 250 islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs, and sandbars, the most being uninhabited due to lack of dry land and impossible living conditions. Three archipelagos emerged, containing: the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal.

The South China Sea is rich in resources, being one of the most used waters in terms of maritime usage. The straits in the area like the Strait of Malacca, Lambok Strait, Sanda receive daily tonnages of oil and goods. Due to extensive usage of the area, a great number of piracy claims have been reported. The most wanted resources are of course the gas and oil reserves, of significant quantities, resources since China started to exploit this year. The trick is that these exploitations were done in an area disputed with Vietnam. Another important market which works as an important monopolize of the trading in the area is the fishing industry. The variety and ecosystem of the area are important factors which created disputes between the neighboring countries.

For a long period of time this part of the Far East has been considered the area most prone to conflict, due to the territorial claims that continue to develop. Basically, China has overlapping claims with all of its neighboring countries being the only one that sustains that the entire region should be under its administration. The first ones that should be mentioned are Vietnam and Taiwan, over the Salty Islands and the waters located in the west. Vietnam also disputes with China the Paracel Islands and together with Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, The Gulf of Thailand. But the list is not over, China also disputed with Malaysia and Singapore the Straits of Singapore and Johore. Philippines, China and Taiwan quarrel about the Scarborough Shoal and the latest two with Indonesia for Natuna Islands.

It can be said that before the 50s both China and Vietnam controlled their disputed Paracel Islands After a violent encounter in 1974. The Paracel Island was claimed by China and until more recently this is the way in which it was recognized. Due to heightened tensions, attempts have been made to avoid violent eruptions in this region. For example attention has been re-directed towards economic gains and splitting the profit in order to re-distribute attention from the sovereignty claims. So far China adopted a bilateral way for solving conflicts and the other states prefer multi-lateral talks. It is more that possible for the other countries to be scared of the power that China has and believe that face to face negotiations would endanger their positions.

It can be said that there were several disputes in the area, not only between China and other countries, but also between Malaysia and Singapore, dispute which was resolved in 2008 by splitting the contested domains. It can be observed that in the area, disputes are not necessary between China and other countries, but however in the cases of other countries disputes tend to be solved. China would not even accept the help of other countries.

One of the main disputes in the area started after the Vietnam sealed a contract in 2011 to distribute oil. China saw itself and threatened and accused Vietnam of betrayal and stopped the arrangements. China was accused several times of in front of international Courts of not respecting the International Law. For example Philippines in 2013, accused China for the claims that it had with regards to the international day. In 2014, China located some oil rigs near Paracel Islands and in this started some violent encounters with Vietnam, which was hardly accused for doing an agreement in 2011.

In  regard with the causes of the conflict, we may talk about three different types of causes. First of all, structural causes of the conflict can be considered the reach area in natural resources and the well-developed industry of fishery in all of the countries involved. Also, the fact that the other countries are afraid of China’s power is an important factor that influences the way in which countries could cooperate for a division of territory. In what regards the proximate causes of the conflict, it can be said that no exact territorial delimitation exists and countries have a, unequal role in this game. Also, it is not very open to cooperation, given the fact that China wants it all. The triggers of the latest conflict are the oil rig that China placed this year in the South China Sea, near the Paracel Islands, action that brought about the outrage of all the surrounding neighbors and also of the international scene.

The territorial dispute in South China Sea encompasses a series of islands that are wealthy in natural resources and the surrounding waters are rich in gas and petroleum. Also, this area is an important trade route and fishing zone. China recently placed a rig in the area, claiming practically sovereignty over that area. In this sense Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia. All have claims over the region. In Vietnam a series of protests took place as a result of the strategic positioning of the rig in the South China Sea. In addition, Vietnam believes that the rig is located in its continental shelf and since then Vietnam started to show aggressiveness towards Chinese citizens. This spring, China decided to expend its Identification zone even further and in spite of the revolt that it provoked the first time, was positive about the move. This move we seen as an offensive response an infringement of interests that can hardly release tensions in the Far East. According to The diplomat, this plan was made immediately after the first expansion.

The dispute over the South China Sea pits China against its smaller, weaker regional neighbors. It is, of course, the key player in this conflict whose main goals include sovereignty over the resource-rich South China Sea, as it needs to defend seaborne commerce, national security, and territorial integrity. By claiming ownership over the South China Sea, it also demands and enforces control to an extent over the rest of the states which also share the sea: Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines.

Despite the historical ties and more importantly due to the political mistrust between them, Taiwan, another actor in the conflict, has no positive relations with China, as it needs to maintain good standing with the US, its biggest ally and arms provider. Taiwan and China even share claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. It seeks independence, but by gaining control over the rest of the territory of the China Sea, it would mean gaining control for China, to whom it actually belongs to.

The interests of the different nations include the control of shipping lanes of major significance, acquiring fishing areas around the disputed area, the potential exploitation of suspected oil, natural gas and other potentially significant maritime resources under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea.

Another key actor is the United States, with complex dilemmas in balancing and choosing between competing interests. Particularly, the interests of the United States here concern the freedom of navigation and maintaining the US-led order at sea as well as the international norms and laws; the relations with important partners and allies as well as containing Chinese aggression in the region by building a regional counterweight to it.

Among the 4 ASEAN claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines are the states with most ‘incidents’ with China and actively call for ASEAN’s solidarity in handling the conflict, with Philippines also seeking a settlement of the disputes that’s internationally recognized. Moreover, the Philippines is a treaty ally thus the United States has to honor its security treaty. Malaysia and Brunei didn’t feel threatened directly by China and place greater importance to their relations to it. Although most ASEAN countries have close trade-economic ties with China, on one hand they develop the economic relations with China and on the other they reinforce security relations with the US or enhance military modernization.

Looking for a change in the status quo, China is making progress in reclaiming the disputed areas in the South China Sea.

As reported by Hong Kong and Taiwan news sources, China’s Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy has surveyed five islands from the disputed maritime territories of Spratly Islands, angering nations like the Philippines in the process who, along with Malaysia and Brunei have a claim on the territories. Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao underlines the fact that the mission was directly approved by Xi, Jinping, China’s president. This comes at a time when China has been actively expanding its presence in the area by making great efforts to create new lands (artificial islands) using reefs, BBC reported.

China’s factory-like efficiency is leading nations in the area to believe that new land masses might mean developing military facilities, such as air bases. China already announced this month that it has finished building Paracels’ largest airport – for military and civilian purpose. These facts prompted other nations to act, with the United Stated partially lifting its 40 years arms embargo on Vietnam earlier in October, thus making possible the immediate delivery of defensive systems, which automatically mean a bigger risk for China. Recently, the Philippines and Vietnam have been the nations who most voiced their position against China’s claims using verbal and naval confrontations.

There is a good sign, however, that tensions over territorial demands in the South China Sea might lift to an extent. This Saturday, just weeks after announcement concerning the embargo, China and Vietnam finally agreed in high-level meetings to address and work out their maritime disputes, as well as to resume military ties.


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