10 South China Sea Dispute Facts – WMNews Ep. 54
10 South China Sea Dispute Facts – WMNews Ep. 54
#10: What Is the Current South China Sea Dispute?
An ongoing territory dispute between China and other Southeast Asian countries, the problems in the South China Sea largely focus on two island clusters; the Spratly and Paracel Islands. China is looking to expand and establish its command across the Sea by gaining control of the two archipelagos, but surrounding nations are refusing to surrender their claims to the land. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are all involved in this situation, which is also causing international tension.
#9: When Did It Begin?
China has consistently laid claims to the entire South China Sea, especially since the 1940s. However, historical disputes and territorial claims date back further still. China says that there is evidence of Chinese nationals using both the Spratly Islands as far back as the 3rd century BC. On the other hand, in the early 1800s Vietnam surveyed the Paracel Islands, before beginning to build on them. From this point forward, both countries have traded claims to ownership, with the Philippines especially becoming involved in the twentieth century.
#8: What Is So Special About the Area?
The Territorial Claims
For China, ownership of the island groups is an opportunity to shore-up national security. Despite much of the disputed land being mostly submerged in water, China is using the small areas that do rise above sea level as starting points to develop man-made military bases. While China reasons that the bases are necessary to protect its vast coastline, other countries, including those vying for ownership and the US, are concerned about developments. Furthermore, the Sea itself is thought to contain a wealth of unexploited oil, natural gas and other minerals. Though reports on the richness of the resources differ, the South China Sea is a valuable region for anyone able to tap it.
#7: What Are the Areas of Contention?
Opposition to China is fuelled by Chinese encroachment into other ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’. An EEZ is an area of ocean stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast, over which any state has authoritative rights according to international law. The Paracel Islands have been under Chinese control since 2012, despite the fact that they also fall within Vietnam’s EEZ. The more southerly Spratly Islands are situated in an even more complex position, within which the maritime claims for six countries overlap. In terms of area, the Spratly Islands cover over 160,000 square miles but only around 1.5 of those are above sea level. The South China Sea itself is an area of around 1.4 million square miles, with China seeking sovereignty over the vast majority.
#6: Who Is Involved in the Conflict?
Vietnam is especially involved in the Paracel Islands dispute, but also has a strong interest in the Spratly situation, given that they currently control the greatest number of islands, at 29. The Philippines are heavily involved in the Spratly standoff as well, with the EEZs of Malaysia and Brunei drawn into the dispute. The conflict is felt even further afield though, as the South China Sea represents one of the planet’s busiest shipping routes. India especially has called for a solution, as it frequently exports and imports through the region, while the United States is another major international power that is indirectly affected.
#5: Who Claims to Own the Territory?
The Nine-Dash Line
Much of the dispute is built on China’s insistence that a so-called ‘nine-dash line’ be adhered to. A demarcation line which encircles almost all of the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands, it was originally conceived by China in 1947. A geopolitical marker made amid a post-World War international dividing of territory, the ‘nine-dash line’ was originally drawn up by the ‘Republic of China’, which is now Taiwan. It therefore forms the basis of Taiwanese South China Sea claims as well. In 2009, China submitted a map to the UN that included the nine-dash line; it was immediately protested by the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. As of 2015, no further claims to the nine-dash territory have been officially lodged.
#4: How Have Countries Staked Their Territory?
The Sierra Madre
Perhaps the defining image of the dispute is the one inspired by the Philippine resistance to China’s territorial claim. A one-time US navy ship, the Sierra Madre was grounded by the Philippines at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. A disputed area that lies a little over 100 nautical miles from the Philippines and more than 800 miles from China, it has served as an outpost of sorts for Manila, although its effectiveness is waning by the day. Chinese coastguard cutters pen the Sierra Madre in, forcing its small crew into an extremely isolated existence on board an ever-decaying vessel. China seems prepared to wait the situation out in what, from an international perspective, is a ‘David v Goliath’ situation.
#3: How Has This Affected the Region?
As the situation has escalated relatively quickly in recent years, international tension has spread further north, with Japan allegedly on the edge of becoming involved as well. In November 2015, Japanese media reported that the country’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was ‘opposed to all unilateral attempts to change the status quo’ in the South China Sea. The reports were subsequently confirmed by other Japanese officials, as the nation pre-empts the effect that far-flung Chinese airbases could have on its security. Japan is also concerned about the damage that a Chinese-controlled Sea could inflict on its economy, due to the disruption of trade routes.
#2: Why Did the United States Get Involved?
The US launched a ‘freedom of navigation’ operation in late October 2015, moving the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, to within 12 nautical miles of an area known as Mischief Reef. A spot situated in the Spratly Islands, Mischief Reef is a prime example of how China is developing military bases. But America’s decision to deploy a significant warship into the region served as a statement of intent to Beijing. The USA says its major concern relates to the impact that Chinese actions could have on international trade, while speculation continues to mount regarding China’s military intentions.
#1: How Will This End?
China has shown perseverance and aggression in pushing the situation to its current point. With America already involved, Japan edging ever closer to involvement, and support for and against the Chinese being given by other nations, the South China Sea has become a priority region for international affairs. Should the dispute develop into an US/China standoff, then tension is only set to rise. With China widely considered a super-power of the future, if not already, any outcome will be indicative of just how influential the Chinese are, and could be. If China’s claim to the Sea is recognized, then their global profile will soar even higher.
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