South China Sea (SCS) is a marginal sea around 3,500,000 sq km it is part of Pacific Ocean encompassing an area from Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan.One third of the world’s shipping transit through it; it is believed that its seabed has huge oil and gas reserves. It comprises over 200 islands, rocks, and reefs and includes the Paracels and Spratly groups of islands. The unresolved maritime claims to all, or parts, of South China Sea involve Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and China. Vietnam Taiwan and China have claimed entire area, while others have claimed contiguous zones.
Beside its dispute I have also made an attempt to understand the geopolitics surrounding South China Sea; its strategic importance to China, role of USA, and how India is trying to counter balance China with its “Necklace of Diamond” strategy against China’s so-called “String of Pearls”.
Historical background and claims in South China Sea (SCS)
Historically this sea was controlled by various Dynasties that ruled China from 206 B.C. to 589 A.D. From 7thcentury it was controlled by Kingdom of Champ which ruled today’s Vietnam and from 1644A.D. to 1911 by Qing Dynasty of China.Later, during WW II, it was under Japanese control. Hence, China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim entire SCS as they have historical evidences to support their claims. In 1887 China and France signed a boundary agreement which specified that islands situated east of the designated line belonged to China.In San Francisco Conference of September 1951 the allied powers failed to identify who had title to the SCS islands after they divested Japan from its possession. Article 2(f) of the San Francisco Treaty simply stated that “Japan renounces all right, title, and claim to the Spratly and Paracel Island. This gave rise to a legal and political vacuum, and thereby allowed the littoral states to raise their respective claims. The separation of historical claims from actual occupation played a significant role for the subsequent development of the SCS dispute.
On 12 May 1977 Vietnam declared a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and included the Paracels and Spratlys islands in its territorial water, by 1999 some 27 islands and reefs were occupied by Vietnam in the Spratlys. During the same period Philippine occupied eight islands beginning in March 1978, and issued a declaration incorporating the claim into the Philippine territory in the following December. From one continental shelf in 1979 Malaysia occupied 5 shelves by 1999.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in1982 has laid down a number of guidelines concerning the status of islands, continental shelves, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), enclosed seas, and territorial limits. UNCLOS states that countries with overlapping claims must resolve them though good faith negotiation.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been keen to ensure that the territorial disputes within the SCS do not escalate into armed conflict. As such, Joint Development Authority have been set up in areas of overlapping claims to jointly develop the area and divide the profits equally without settling the issue of sovereignty over the area.
The image below shows their respective claims
The image below shows how UNCLOS (1982) has defined their maritime boundaries as regard to Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
The latest escalation on friction has started with a confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and International bids by China and Vietnam for oil exploration in areas of the SCS contested by the two.
Efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to get the support of their ASEAN counterparts during the 45th ministerial meeting on 9 July 2012 resulted in ASEAN’s inability to issue a communiqué for the 1sttime. The disputes are likely to persist or even grow as there is a large potential for oil and gas reserves along with rich marine resources in SCS.
Therefore, without a strong, effective and permanent dispute settlements mechanism with a binding legal force, UN and ASEAN can only manage, not settle the disputes in SCS.
China’s Strategic interests in South China Sea (SCS)
China with its rapid economic and military growth has started playing a major role in shaping the geopolitics of world in general and Asia-Pacific in particular. In the longer term, China probably aspires to supplant America’s pre-eminence, but in the shorter and medium term it is preoccupied with domestic problems, with trying to expand its influence in neighbouring regions and warding off perceived US pressures or designs that are seen as inimical to China’s interest. China has claimed almost 90 % of SCS as its own integral part according to its 9dash line map based on historical evidence.
About 80% of China’s imported oil supply passes through SCS, and almost 90% of its export is through this region.Beside it is believed that SCS has a large number of hydrocarbon reserves mainly oil and natural gas. As a result, control of SCS is central to China’s strategic thinking. The most important priority in China’s foreign policy objectives in Asia-Pacific, including the SCS, is to ensure a stable external environment conducive to China’s economic growth and military modernization.
To enlarge its political and economic space and to conscribe the United States from undertaking perceived anti-China moves in this regionChina has been building various cooperative multilateral institutions and bilateral partnerships with neighbouring countries.
USA and its Strategic Interest in Asia Pacific
Long before USA became an Atlantic power it was a Pacific Power. United States has been dominant in the Asia-Pacific because of three structural factors: Its claims global leadership; secondly US perceives Pacific Ocean as a natural zone of American influence, as “our lake”; and the third is the outcome of the dynamics of the US political system.
East Asia/Southeast Asiais a multi-billion dollar market for US agricultural products and supports, directly and indirectly, millions of American jobs in all sectors of the US economy. Besides its economic worth, Southeast Asia is of great strategic importance for the United States. It is situated in the middle of the sea routes from the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, through which much of the world’s trade and energy supplies pass. Hence the fundamental goal of the US in the Asia-Pacific is to prevent the domination of Southeast Asia by any other power.
With this brief prescription it becomes clear that the issue SCS is a core issue of US National Interest. China wants to deal with each of its rivals one-on-one and is moving to exploit competing claims within ASEAN to keep its members divided. Meanwhile United States claims that it, is trying to foster a unified ASEAN code of conduct in the dispute with China.
The following video gives us glimpse of current situation in the disputed region
India’s rise and its strategic interest in South China Sea (SCS)
The East Sea/South China Sea’s geopolitics has an ancient as well as contemporary significance for India. Strategically, India believes that enhancing its engagements in East Asia is one of the measures to limit China’s influence on South Asia and Indian Ocean.
Under the look East Policy launched by India in 1991, a new phase of economic and engagements with ASEAN and East Asian states was initiated. This brought India and China face to face. India has a strong strategic interest in keeping sea lanes open in SCS, in order to promote its political, military, economic and cultural cooperation with the East Asian region. In 1996 India became member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF;in 2005 it was included unequivocally in East Asia Summit. This means that India has transcended its South Asian Focus and has emerged on the wider regional scene as an actor with significant broader Asian interest.
In December last year India hosted India-ASEAN commemorative Summit celebrating the 20th anniversary of Indian-ASEAN dialogue partnership and 10th anniversary of Indian-ASEAN summit level partnership. Wary of continued Chinese aggression in the SCS, ASEAN nations are looking at India to take a leading role in this region’s maritime politics.
The SCS is not only a strategic maritime link between the pacific and the Indian oceans, but vital gateway for shipping in East Asia, almost 50% of India’s trade transits through the SCS. Besides the political, security, trade and connectivity significance India is also interested in the energy resources of this region. Apart from helping secure energy supplies for countries like Japan and Korea, India has the unique distinction of shipping oil from Sakhalin to Mangalore through sea routes of this region.
India’s (ONGC Videsh) oil exploration in collaboration with PetroVietnam annoyed China and resulted in a small skirmish between them;China deliberately tried to hammer India’s oil exploration.In December 2012,Indiastated that its interest in this region are purely commercial, aimed at energy exploration and it will use force if needed to secure it.
The following video further supplements my argument.
From the above explanation it becomes clear that Southeast Asia is witnessing an emergence of a new tri-polar structure with China, USA and India as its poles and where USA’s hegemony is challenged by China.
India is now being courted by USA as a counterweight to China as both are huge countries and know how to calculate their national interests. The recent rise of China’s assertiveness in SCS has a direct linkage with its acquisition of Gwadar port (Pakistan), it is believed that it will drastically reduce China’s dependency on the Malacca strait and hence will allow China to even use coercive measures against its opponents. If China continues to assert dominance over these waters, it will be difficult for India to continue with its activities through this channel. Therefore, it is vital for India to have access to the region.
China’s recent acts in the SCS indicate that it is unilaterally trying to change the status Quo in SCS through its revisionist agenda i.e. a shift from land centric to maritime diplomacy. On India’s part if it is concerned about freedom of navigation this is an issue that will profoundly impact Indian foreign policy.
The difference in economic and military potentials between India and China is so great that today it is impossible to talk about parity, but it is equally true that despite its limited resources India possess biggest challenge to China’s Hegemony in Asia-Pacific. Hence India will continue to actively indicate its presence in this and other regions vital to its interests, but it is unlikely that they will start a direct confrontation with each other at least in near future.
LeszekBuszynski & IskandarSazalan, Maritime Claims and Energy Cooperation in the South China Sea, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 29, no.1 (April 2007), p. 144.
Vikram Nehru, Collision course in South China Sea, The National Interest.
Daljit Singh, Asia-Pacific Political & Security Dynamics, in Political & Security Dynamics Of south & SEA, (ISEAS)2007, p., 27.
JornDosch, United States Security Policies in Asia, Hodeley&Ruland, (ISEAS) 2006, p., 112.
5 Vo XuanVinh, India’s Stand on the East Sea/South China Sea Disputes and its Implications, World Focus, January 2013.
6 Dr. Jagannath Panda, South China Sea: ASEAN wants India to Counter China, World Focus, January 2013.