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China's aggressive actions in SCS fuel regional tensions

The SCS traditionally provided access to all for trade and navigation as part of the global commons and as a bridge between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:10 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:10 IST

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The South China Sea (SCS) does not exclusively belong to China, but Beijing's aggressive display of military powers creates tension in the region.

The SCS traditionally provided access to all for trade and navigation as part of the global commons and as a bridge between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The seas saw disputes over fishing rights and hydrocarbon reserves, but passions were inflamed when territorial claims and island capture affected sovereignty issues. The militarisation of the SCS and the use of force to stake territorial claims or deny access to local inhabitants made it a hotspot with implications for regional security and stability.

The power play in the SCS raised two serious issues. First, how to reconcile competing sovereignty claims, some on a historical basis, others based on international law. Second, how to reduce tensions, through diplomatic negotiations or the use of force.

Zheng He, the Ming admiral, did not visit the SCS islands, but imperial porcelain and coins were allegedly found. China declared its historical claims as legitimate and indisputable. In reality, most of the islands were not occupied; Japanese withdrawal after WWII and the demise of colonial powers created a vacuum that littoral states filled in. In fact, many locations are mere rocks in the sea, visible only at low tide. The SCS holds value for littoral states for traditional fishing and hydrocarbon reserves; for China, its value is strategic.

Historical claims vs. international law

The Kuomintang government of China, in 1947, plotted an 11-dash line to advance claims over the entire SCS. A Chinese scholar said it had to be a dash-line as the seas are fluid, unlike on land, but the claims are hard. The Communists, who won the civil war, took time to stake a claim but broadly reiterated the nationalist position. Two dashes were removed after China and Vietnam delineated the maritime boundary in the Tonkin Gulf. Vietnam, after freeing its lands from French colonists, also advanced historical claims. They established a physical presence in the Spratly and a few Paracel islands. The Philippines' claim was based on inherited treaty rights over islands in the SCS, following Spanish withdrawal and independence from the USA. Other littoral states, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, had hydrocarbon interests and staked claims based on international law, primarily the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982).

The evolution of ocean governance in the 20th and 21st centuries was related to the development level and strategic interests of states. During UNCLOS negotiations, China aligned with developing countries for wider territorial and economic zones to preempt hegemony by superpowers. Soon, China’s growth and strategic aspirations sought a bigger maritime footprint, including the extended continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. However, UNCLOS in 1982 gave similar rights to China's maritime neighbours in the SCS, leading to overlapping claims and maritime delineation disputes. China found that despite signing UNCLOS, the treaty had become an inconvenient instrument, at least for the SCS theatre.

China shifted to traditional power politics based on historical claims and bilateral negotiations to secure its own interests. By the time the Philippines took China to the UNCLOS Tribunal in 2013 for transgressions of UNCLOS provisions, China's confidence in the UNCLOS process had diminished; it neither joined the case nor accepted its ruling, which was largely supportive of the Philippines' position.

Negotiations vs. power politics

The shift in China’s stance on the SCS, from UNCLOS and international law, began when it encountered a united ASEAN seeking a binding code of conduct for all parties in the SCS. Unwilling to commit to UNCLOS principles but keen not to alienate the claimants, China agreed to a non-binding declaration. However, it stalled negotiations for a binding code of conduct and joint development, affecting the potential to build trust. Meanwhile, China prevailed upon ASEAN members to drop the ASEAN approach and settle for bilateral negotiations.

China’s approach of staking claims on a historical basis became a non-negotiable offer, and a policy of “prepare, provoke, and prosecute” came into effect.

China’s massive defence budget provided resources for rapid infrastructure development on tiny islands or even rocks for military applications, mobilising new naval platforms for the use of overwhelming force and mapping the seabed for baseline determination and resource exploration.

China challenged the sovereignty of the Philippines, a key US ally, by launching several unilateral projects in its economic zone. Protests by the Philippines bore no fruit. China’s island-building in Scarborough Shoal led to serious conflicts, while its military presence in Mischief Reef was used to deny access to the small military presence of the Philippines on Second Thomas Atoll. China’s domineering actions against the Philippines’ fishing or naval ships escalated tensions and increased the potential for conflict. While most governments in the Philippines maintained their security posture and US alliance, China wooed certain Philippine leaders with attractive deals to win support for the Chinese position.

Last month, China also released new baseline maps for its continental shelf in the Tonkin Gulf. This could affect the delimitation already achieved with Vietnam. There is a risk of widening areas of difference, jeopardising existing agreements and increasing the possibility for conflict.

Interestingly, the experience of intra-ASEAN dispute resolution of overlapping claims in the SCS has been positive compared to the tension-fraught experience with China. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia resolved differences through negotiations based on UNCLOS provisions, establishing the potential for non-conflict-based settlements in the region.

Avoid samudra manthan

China’s military presence in the region has domestic support as it targets not only ASEAN states but also Taiwan; further, it reflects its strategic ambitions. China’s use of force and intimidation of smaller states signal a willingness to behave like a traditional expansionist power in the region. Indo-Pacific powers have come to the support of smaller littoral states. The US, Japan, and Australia launched freedom of navigation operations, and joint naval patrolling is planned. The visit of the Philippines President to the USA is expected to provide assurances of support and prioritize rules-based governance. It is necessary to reduce tensions, avoid sabre-rattling, and unilateral steps that diminish trust and engage in diplomatic negotiations. The last thing the region needs is conflict and instability.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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Published 14 April 2024, 00:10 IST

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