The South China Sea: China’s Tug of War with its Neighbors

Jan 21, 2019 | Asia, China, GOV, US

The controversy that surpassed the test of time and emerges to menacing levels

In the world of international affairs, territory can be a tricky business. Many times in the past, countries have gone incredible lengths in an effort to attain ownership of a specific nation. Why do they go through all the trouble? Not only are acts like these incredible examples of power plays, but some lands also hold valuable assets that could potentially improve and build their existing owned states. Not to mention, economically, the political levels steadily make their way to higher grounds while maintaining a strong global presence.

This can get incredibly complex and messy— especially when multiple states have their eyes set on a single particular piece of land. Add China to the equation, a powerful nation with a large global impact, and things get interesting.

The South China Sea goes by many names as it is surrounded by many states, all claiming some ownership of the piece of land settled in the middle of the sea. The sea is also known as the West Philippine Sea by the Philippines, the East Sea by Vietnam, and in China, the South Sea. It is dominantly acknowledged as the South China Sea because most states in the region perceive it as so, namely Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. This brings out the implication that this body of water and all it holds belong to China, but that has been contested to vast extents.

The sea is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. The states that claim ownership of the South China Sea are China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The tricky part of all of this is that, well, they cannot really claim ownership of anything.

According to UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, International Law states that a country may not claim islands that are 200 miles away from the borders of their state, meaning this area is completely unowned by law. This basically gives all states carte blanche to go to the parts of the territory that they legally own, and in the case of the South China Sea, multiple nations own definite parts of it. Keyword: parts.

Enter China.

China takes this law and plasters a big, fat “NOPE” on its forehead. China claims the South China Sea in its entirety as its own territory. This fact brings about deep patterns of complication and tension between all surrounding nations of the South China Sea, causing irreparable damage to its relations in Asia.

The South China Sea: What is it and Why is Everybody Losing Their Marbles About it?

The South China Sea is located east of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, north of Borneo and south of China. The sea is home to five dominant archipelagos including 250 mini-islands, some of them still submerged. These islands are The Scarborough Shoal, The Macclesfield Bank, The Spratly Islands, The Paracel Islands and The Pratas Islands.

The South China Sea is an incredibly fundamental body of water. And with the understanding of all the reasons that make it so important, that sentence might actually be an understatement. The body of water contains 30% of the entire world’s vast reserve of marine biodiversity, making it home to many aquatic species and animals. The sea sits atop an underwater continental shelf. Decades later, land emerged and with it came valuable minerals and commodities honed during its slumber.

Oil reserves are highly prevalent in this area, potentially producing roughly 28 billion barrels of oil, which is like, kind of a big deal. And to add fuel to the fire, oil isn’t the only thing this place is packin’. Its natural gas reserves are reported to measure about 266 trillion cubic feet. With these kinds of treasures lying around an unowned location, one can only expect exploitation of these valuables. And that is indeed the reality.

The South China Sea is the second most popular aquatic lane in the world, paving the way for merchant traders all over the globe. And what is it that they handle? Oil.

Millions of barrels of oil from the South China Sea is traded every single day. This began in 2014 by China’s doing which would later be challenged by Vietnam. Vietnam was basically like, “What do you think you’re doing on my property?”. With China retorting back, “I beg your pardon? YOUR property?” Yeah, excuse me while I grab some popcorn. This did not stop China from exploiting more resources from the territory. In 2017, China discovered methane during their time mining the hydrates in the sea.

It is believed that China has been exerting too much of its self-proclaimed freedom and ownership on the sea, so much so that the essence of what makes it valuable may be slowly depreciating.

China is the New Poseidon: Why Does China Think They Own Sea?

China has set its sights on the South China Sea and it refuses to back down. International law states that no state may claim ownership of the sea, a rule old as time. But it is not the sea per se— it’s what it holds.

With its wondrous and large reserves of valuable resources, China has sufficient foresight to know that passing up on these advantages would be no less of a colossal mistake. But the reserves of oil and natural gas are not the only benefits that come into play with ownership of the space. China utilizes the area for its trade routes. A state that controls a certain area of the sea also controls the trade routes. Imagine what that would mean when half of the entire world’s trade happens in the South China Sea. *shudders* This puts a lot of countries in a tough spot. If anything were to happen to that trade route, it would cause major economic backlashes.

Putting trade routes and valuable resources aside, there is another reason China desires this territory so, and this may be the biggest of them all. China wants the South China Sea because it is an area where they can stow nuclear equipment in the event that the country gets attacked. This way, they have the preparations to retaliate with second-strike capabilities. If countries knew China had this ace up its sleeve, they would relent control at any cost making an already powerful nation ten times scarier.

Fortunately, China’s reasons do not exactly fare well with the United Nations, as well as its neighboring countries and competitors. In that light, the country has succumbed to another excuse as to why the South China Sea belongs to them: a historical reason. And don’t worry— this one is just as unreasonable.

In 1947, China claimed ownership of the South China Sea, publishing a map with its infamous ‘dashed lines’ depicting which parts of the space belonged to them. Nobody opposed. But not for lack of trying. World War II had just ended two years prior and China had surpassed Japan as the leading nation in the continent. Spirits were high, but this was exclusive to only them. Its current competitors, Vietnam and the Philippines, were still colonized states fighting for freedom and independence. UNCLOS had not even existed at the time. This made it possible for China to take over with little to no points of contention.

At this point in time, with extensive research and understanding throughout the United Nations and UNCLOS, it was reported that this nine-dash line China had invented had absolutely zero legal basis. This historical claim was unabashedly denied. China, still fighting, continued with further historical statements trying to establish control over the area and the situation. This is the claim:

Apparently, a long time ago, Chinese fishermen used the land for fishing grounds. Oh, you expected more information? Nope, that’s literally it. Of course, this reason was also disregarded by the general consensus, placing China in aggressive desperation. It was time to handle the conditions with brute force.

China’s Upper Hand: Military Strength is the new Logical Reasoning

China is not opposed to making power moves, utilizing its infamous militia to get what it wants and protect its agenda. This is proven by its formation of artificial islands throughout the South China Sea. These islands contain nuclear and military equipment, as well as the Chinese military, aimed to take the land by force. They have acted upon this knowing that building these artificial lands are only permissible within 200 nautical miles of their border. But this is not a surprise. China respects power, not international law. This is a move of intimidation towards its biggest competitors regarding the South China Sea: Vietnam and the Philippines.

The tactic did not go down easy. Another party, a nation unlikely to be involved in the fiasco, appeared. And it did not like watching its allies get threatened by its number one enemy.

Retaliation at its Finest: The United States is a Pretty Hefty Bodyguard

If China’s military capabilities should be rivaled by anyone, it is the United States. In this battle of control over the South China Sea, it is apparent that the United States gains nothing over this dispute. They are not fighting for ownership of any islands. They are retaliating to protect Vietnam and the Philippines over the passive-aggressive tactics China seems to be dishing out. And well, maybe for spite too.

The United States’ military have been sailing by the South China Sea and flying aircrafts over the land in an effort to say, “Hey, remember me? If it’s a fight you want, it’s a fight you’ll get.” The United States decided to call China’s bluff and station 40% of their military in the South China Sea, waiting for China’s potential navigations of war. Rest assured, the United States cannot sit idle while China manipulates its allies along with the rest of the world. Something had to be done.

This, of course, did not sit well with China. Historically, China and the United States have quite the competition with military strategies aimed to intimidate the other. Their approaches lie in very similar structures. But we know what happens when we pit fire against fire. Only, in this case, it’s looking like one fire is much bigger than the other. Good luck, China.

Unity is the Solution: ASEAN’S Role in This Affair

Though the United States has joined forces, do not be mistaken— this is an ASEAN issue. In the end, what truly matters is what happens to the South China Sea. The United States can only do so much. In reality, we have to know: what is Vietnam going to do? What is the Philippines going to do? And what does the ASEAN have up its sleeve? ASEAN may not be the most united organization of all, but against the Dragon, it may just rise to the occasion.

Vietnam, China’s competitor regarding historical ownership:

China saying that they used the South China Sea first as fishing grounds struck a nerve with Vietnam. In 1974, China killed the Vietnamese officers settled on the Paracel Islands in order to take it. Furthermore, they took over the Spratly Islands in the same manner. Countless casualties all because of a self-proclaimed rule and an unofficial map. To this day, the victims are still remembered in Vietnam.

Because Vietnam was threatened by China’s military power, they boosted their militia with the help of the United States and India, two well-known enemies of China. Vietnam ordered missiles from India and they are nice and settled in the Vietnam-China border. This land definitely ain’t big enough for the two of them.

The Philippines, China’s competitor regarding proximity:

The Philippines is not fighting for anything other than the territory within 200 nautical miles of its coast. Unfortunately, this could not be done as China’s nine-dash line coincides with the territory— something all parties know as an unreasonable and illegitimate claim. Yet, the Philippines is regarded as having the losing edge all for its understandable and appropriate rights.

The Philippines’ claims are backed up by the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France and many more. Logically, it’s quite obvious which party is being out of line.

 India, China’s Nemesis and ASEAN’s Last Resort:

India is not here to claim anything nor cause any fires. They are merely little gasoline sputters, raising fires and trying to get China to back down. Although, this plan did not come about of their own accord. India has a friendly, amicable relationship with ASEAN and a not-so-great relationship with China (now THAT’s an understatement). Because of this, ASEAN suggested India get involved in the South China Sea matter. India has the ability to counter China and, at the same time, maintain cordial relations with ASEAN.

ASEAN needs a strong, influential nation to help the Southeast Asian countries during this endeavor, and they can count on India to influence a peaceful dialogue. India has shown interest as this could potentially boost its relations with ASEAN and its countries.

China’s Possible War Triggers: Is it Worth it?

China is growing more and more powerful as the years go by. This shows that being passive in situations like this can be fatal. The South China Sea matter has escalated to illogical proportions, inviting parties that were never meant to be involved. This entire situation is a magnificent example as to how China plays by their own rules and standards— something countries have learned to grow wary of. The intention to use aggression and bullying tactics can only get you so far.

This will no doubt greatly affect China’s desire for a powerful global impact and influence. China’s reputation has been dragged through the mud, now being labeled as oathbreakers or violators. Signing up for UNCLOS was a decision made by them— why is it not being respected? This will, unfortunately, result in untrusting ties with China from different countries too. Because if responsibilities cannot be honored, why bother getting into agreements in the first place?

The deep-seated problem in this issue is China’s illegitimate ambition to be a hegemony, and try to get there with strategies that only accomplish the opposite. If everyone is not careful, scholars have reported that this very well may lead to a World War. There are consequences to opposing International Law. Let’s hope China knows what it’s doing. Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.