Covering over 3.5 million sq km, the South China Sea stretches from Karimata, off Indonesia’s western coastline and the Malacca Straits in the east, all the way to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast.
Rival nations with overlapping claims have wrangled over this sea for centuries. But of late the wrangles have escalated into a potential flashpoint involving two major nuclear powers.
China, after which the sea is named, cites historical rights to claim almost all of it as its own. So does Taiwan. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have conflicting claims to the waters surrounding their nations. Even nations which have no geographical claims in the region, like the US, are involved in the multilateral dispute, citing issues like freedom of navigation, defence treaties with nations in the region and other maritime clauses.
How do nations support their claims?
China has backed its expansive claims with extensive island building and fortifications on islands, along with aggressive naval and air patrols. Others, like the Philippines and Vietnam have hurried to set up a presence on disputed reefs, sandbars and rocks, turning some of them into islands by dredging and fortifications.
The chock-a-block island
The US, which has been the leading naval power in the Asia Pacific for long, has alliances with several of the nations which have conflicting claims with China. For instance, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the US to intervene militarily if China invades or attacks Taiwan. Both China and Taiwan claim to be the official government of China, and have almost identical claims over the South China Sea. With every nation using, or threatening to use, military might to defend its claims, the sea has become chock-a-block with heavily armed vessels and aircraft, leading to serious concerns about a spiralling conflict with major global consequences.
What is the argument about?
The dispute is essentially over territory and sovereignty over areas of the ocean, and two island chains—the Paracels and the Spratlys—claimed entirely or partly by various nations. Apart from these islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal, giving whoever controls them the rights to the surrounding waters.
What is at stake?
At stake is not just the rich fishing, and the immense resources, including minerals, oil and gas located underneath the seabed. More than $5 trillion worth of trade passes through these waters every year, including almost a third of China’s fuel needs. Also, strategically, anyone who controls the choke points or the islands which can house missiles could potentially choke or hold the world's busiest sea route to hostage.
Who claims what?
China claims almost the entire sea, with an area marked by what is called the "nine-dash line", which covers almost the entire sea and includes the two island chains. It asserts its rights to the sea on the basis of centuries-old claims, when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were integral parts of the Chinese nation, and issued a detailed map in 1947 to support these claims. Taiwan uses the same logic to claim the same area. But this nine-dash line has been challenged by critics who point out that apart from other conflicting claims by nations in the region, the Chinese map does not include co-ordinates, and does not specify whether China claims only land territory within the nine-dash line, or all the waters within the line as well.
Claims and proofs
—Both China and the Philippines claim the Scarborough Shoal, about 160km from the Philippines shoreline and 800 km from the Chinese coastline.
—Vietnam insists that it has evidence in the form of documents to prove that it has ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century.
—The Philippines cites its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands to claim a few of them. So does Malaysia.
—Malaysia and Brunei also cite their sovereign economic exclusion zones, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to stake claim to the seas around their nations.
The Indian angle
Around 50% of India's trade passes through Malacca Strait (part of South China Sea), and India worries that a Chinese control over that strait could hamper this. Any Chinese presence or claim in the region would also threaten joint oil and mineral exploration projects in the region, like the one it has with Vietnam. China has already warned India when ONGC and PetroVietnam signed the MoU for this. While India is yet to accept US requests for joint patrolling of the region, it has made it clear that it will continue with its exploration, and also sent warships to Vietnam as a part of a goodwill visit.
Ways to break the gridlock
China is opposed to negotiating the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a 10-member regional grouping that consists of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. The ASEAN too has failed to arrive at any consensus given the complicated and conflicting claims involved. China’s offer for bilateral negotiations too have not found much support, with many of its neighbours pointing out that the nation’s relative size and clout give it an unfair advantage.
- 1974: China sends troops and warships to the Paracels and occupies the chain after clashes in which more than 70 Vietnamese troops die. Since then, it has launched massive infrastructure projects, including an upgraded airport, a large sea port, and even a city hall, as well as barracks for troops
- 1988: China and Vietnam clash in the Spratlys, 60 Vietnamese sailors die
- 2012: China and the Philippines accuse each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal, leading to a long naval stand-off
- 2013: Reports that the Chinese navy sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations in late 2012 lead to massive protests in Vietnam. The Philippines announces it would take China to an arbitration tribunal under UNCLOS to challenge its claims
- 2014: A massive Chinese deep-sea drilling rig towed near the Paracel Islands leads to several clashes and collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships
- 2016: Chinese navy seizes a US Navy unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), returns it after warning Washington to back-off from the region
- 2016: The UNCLOS tribunal rules that China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights. China, which had boycotted the proceedings, describes the ruling as "ill-founded" and says it will not be bound by it
What makes China desperate?
China has two sea coastlines—the East China Sea to the north and the South China Sea to the south, with Taiwan positioned in the middle.
Both are surrounded by groups of islands that isolate the seas from the Pacific and, therefore, from the rest of the world. The Philippines and Indonesian islands create narrow passages into the Pacific and Indian oceans, with randomly distributed smaller islands in between. The interior of the South China Sea is also filled with small islands. Any of these islands can house hostile air and missile forces, while the narrow spaces in between can be blocked by naval forces.
China is a major trading power that depends on its access to the world’s oceans, and any blockade imposed by a power such as the United States could cripple the nation. To ensure guaranteed passage through the barriers, China needs to take control of the islands around the frame, hold them to prevent air attacks and use them for land- and sea-based missiles to keep an enemy fleet far to the east or deter a blockade in the first place.
Hence Beijing's urgency to claim the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Until they can guarantee that these islands are not controlled by hostile forces, their ability to create a Chinese-controlled channel through the islands framing the South China Sea is limited. They need to clear the islands both to allow themselves access and to deny anyone the ability to use the islands to cripple operations in the first place. The Chinese are trying to take the first step in guaranteeing their access to the global sea lanes.
The India angle
Vietnam is strengthening military ties with the United States, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, and Russia, building what Joshua Kurlantzick of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations calls a “web of ad hoc bilateral relationships to shore up their security.”