Will the South China Sea tensions lead to conflict?

Last Updated on March 21, 2024 12:52 pm

Md Khayrul Bashar, Senior Reporter:

Tensions between the Philippines and China have risen in recent months over disputed claims in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has visited the Philippines. He announced the extension of a security agreement with the country on Tuesday on the security issue of the Philippine Coast Guard. After that, China warned the US about the South China Sea issue. In a statement on Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in the Philippines warned that the United States must refrain from “stirring up trouble” or taking sides on the South China Sea issue.

The Philippines and the United States agreed to a mutual defense treaty of 1951. Under that agreement, both sides have to support each other if any country is attacked. Last year, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. pressed the United States to clarify the scope of that security commitment.

Despite the sharp spat between China and the US over the South China Sea, the two countries have so far managed to keep their differences over the disputed territory, in a sense, under control. Despite the trade conflict between the two countries, America has not taken any side in the territorial dispute over the ownership of the area. They have only demanded freedom of movement of their ships in that area. All in all, the heat between the two powerful countries has now spread to the South China Sea.

Why is the South China Sea located in this important ring of the Pacific Ocean so important for the two countries?

This sea is very important in terms of economy, diplomacy and politics. China claims that 90 percent of this sea belongs to them. The area of which stands at 3 million 50 thousand square kilometers. Apart from this, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam are bordered by the South China Sea. Therefore, they also claim the rightful ownership of this sea. They allege that China has been trying to control this sea for a long time.

What is China’s goal in the South China Sea?

China considers the South China Sea an important part of its maritime domain. Hainan Island is home not only to the naval bases of China’s nuclear defense system, but also to the Silk Road maritime route as part of China’s massive global development project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Therefore, it is very important for China to control this South China Sea for the future success of China’s economic development.

Since 2012, China has been carrying out large-scale development and settlement activities on islands in the South China Sea. China has improved the administrative structure of the islands. Chinese authorities have built modern housing in small fishing villages in the Paracel Islands. Primary schools, banks, hospitals and mobile communication systems have been installed. Tourists from the mainland regularly visit the islands on cruises. China has also moved ahead with the acquisition of the Spratly Islands in the second phase of development. Administrative facilities are provided.

Over the past six years, China has built naval engineering and military installations on the Spratly’s small atoll, including airfields, naval logistics depots and air bases, ammunition bunkers, radar sites and underground missile launchers.

Satellite and aerial surveillance cameras captured images of these facilities, as well as hospitals, sports centers and various buildings. Fruit, vegetable and animal farms have developed on some coral islands. The Chinese Academy of Sciences even set up a marine research center on an atoll in January 2019. Residents of these atolls enjoy 5G mobile data.

Fishermen now have access to improved fishing boats, their lives have become much easier. In short, the appearance of these islands in the South China Sea has changed a lot in the last six years.

Why the United States?

The US has long been working on behalf of countries that have interests in the South China issue. The US sees this ‘sensitive’ region near China as an opportunity to show its power. Because, Washington has the most powerful navy in the world. US President Joe Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in May 2022. This economic framework led by Washington includes 14 countries including Australia, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. Basically, this initiative has been taken to prevent the activities of China.

The US also conducts naval exercises along this route. But China has always warned the US not to talk about them. On December 30, 2022, US warplanes came close to Chinese military warplanes in the South China Sea. Later, both the countries made counter statements about it.

Commercial dependence

Not only China, but also Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam depend on the China Sea commercially. Analysts have recommended the names of five countries other than China – Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea – in terms of trade importance.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, about $3.37 trillion worth of trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016. Which is 21 percent of global trade. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2021, more than 40 percent of international trade takes place by sea. 54 percent of maritime trade is conducted in Asia alone.

China’s activity

Western officials claim that Beijing is continuing to occupy ‘land’ in the South China Sea, ignoring international obstacles. Already they have occupied the area of the island surrounded by coral reef artificially. They militarized the islands and installed other infrastructure like ports, runways, helipads and airfields. Arrangements have also been made to land warplanes there. Those images emerged in some satellite images released last December.

Countries like Brunei, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam also claim the disputed region of the South China Sea (Spratly). For several years there has been tension between them around this region. China built those bases to counter their claims. Because there are oil and gas reservoirs in that part of the South China Sea. Apart from the Spratlys, China also asserts its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.

Regardless of China’s claims, its rights in the South China Sea are overwhelming. However, in 2016, the Hague Court did not uphold that right. In 2013, the court ruled in the case filed by the Philippines that China’s historical claim of the nine-dash line has no legal basis.

What is the Law of the Sea?

According to the UN Law of the Sea, any independent country can claim a maritime zone up to 12 nautical miles from its coastal zone. And the area up to 200 nautical miles is called Exclusive Economic Zone. That is, any coastal country in this region can enjoy the freedom to mine natural resources and even build artificial islands. According to this law, there is a gap in China’s claim. The United States and the South China Sea Partnership claim that China is not complying with this law. However, China claims that they do not create any obstacle to commercial shipping.

Meanwhile, these maritime claimant countries hope that the United States will return their rights. According to Mark Valencia, an analyst on the international law of the sea, the United States has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Without doing so, the United States has no right to speak of seeking freedom of navigation.

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