South China Sea: Asia’s Troubled Waters

By Maj. Gen. Sudhakar Jee

  • On December 2, when the Philippines’ Coast Guard deployed two patrol boats in the area, the CMM had increased to “more than 135” vessels without any response to the radio challenges issued by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to the CMM vessels. Incident involving more than 200 Chinese vessels at the said reef had sparked a diplomatic row in 2021.
  • On November 13, there were 111 “Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels” dispersed and scattered within the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef in  South China Sea (SCS). It is the South-Westernmost island of the Philippines.
  • On October 13, the China’s navy “dangerously” shadowed a Philippine ship that was out on a resupply mission in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), resulting in  a rare standoff between the navies from the two countries amid heightened tensions over contested waters near the Thitu Island – located in the Spratly Islands.

Manila has repeatedly accused Beijing of blocking its shipping vessels in and around Scarborough Shoal, a triangular reef encircling a resource rich lagoon that China seized from the Philippines in 2012 which has remained under China’s administrative control ever since consequent to which  Manila had brought Beijing to the court in 2012 .

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), a U.N. arbitration court, ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying that China’s historical claims to the sea region as delineated then in Chinese maps by a nine-dash line (now a 10-dash line) were invalid. But Beijing rejected the ruling and has since insisted that it has jurisdiction over all areas within that boundary which is approximately 90% of the total area of the SCS.

China’s latest hegemonic behavior appears in the form of what it calls the “new standard” map, published by China’s Ministry of Natural Resources on August 28 , 2023. The new map puts the official stamp on China’s 10-Dash Line, an upgrade from the old 9-Dash Line.

The original map that the nine-dash line claims was created by the National government of the Republic of China in 1947, prior to the Chinese civil war. After the Communist victory, the PRC has used the map to lay claim to vast swathes of territory in the South China Sea and around Taiwan.

However – the original 1947 map was actually an 11 dash map. In 1953, the PRC removed two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin as part of an agreement with the government of Vietnam; this left 9 dashes on the map .  And now  China has 10 again , the tenth one to the east of Taiwan to assert China’s cartographic claim of Taiwan as an integral part of China.

The events of recent days have intermittently gravitated the global spotlight on simmering tensions in the SCS with serious ramifications of the dispute impacting not only the claimants of the sea’s islands and waters but also to all countries in the Indo-Pacific Region, including India.

This is so, as roughly $5 trillion of annual trade passes through the SCS involving half of global daily merchant shipping, a third of oil trade and two thirds of liquid natural gas. According to the Indian Ministry of Shipping, around 95% of India’s trading by volume and 70% by value is done through maritime transport, of which over 55% of India’s trade passes through the SCS.

The SCS eco-region consists of over 250 islands, atolls, and shoals scattered throughout, and grouped into three archipelagos: namely Pratas – occupied by Taiwan (ROC) and disputed between PRC and ROC; Paracel Islands – occupied by the PRC following the Battle of Paracel Islands (1974) and disputed between PRC, Taiwan (ROC) and Vietnam; and the highly disputed Spratly Islands – disputed between the PRC, the ROC, and Vietnam with Malaysia, the Philippines and, to a lesser degree, Brunei, claiming various parts of the archipelago; plus the Zhongsha Islands – Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal.

The SCS dispute essentially revolves around multiple claims to the land features – islands and reefs and associated territorial waters. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, also known as Law of the Sea, it divides marine areas into five main zones namely- Internal Waters, Territorial Sea, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the High Seas. As per the UNCLOS, every state has the right to establish the breadth  of its territorial sea up to a limit of 12 NM  from land base line and an EEZ up to 200 NM from the territorial baseline.

There are as many as 70 disputed reefs and islets under contestation in SCS according to Asia Maritime Transparency (AMTI). With more than 90 outposts built by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan on these disputed features. Vietnam occupies “between 49 and 51 outposts spread across 27 features”, including “facilities built on 21 rocks and reefs in the Spratly Islands”. While Vietnam and other countries have also reclaimed new land to build outposts on them – China’s reclamation activities have especially changed the dynamics of the dispute given Beijing’s resources, speed and scale of reclamation work.

With 20 outposts in Paracel Islands – about 400 km east of central Vietnam and  350 km southeast of Hainan Island and seven in the Spratlys Islands; China since 2012 has exerted control of the Scarborough Shoal through a constant Coast Guard presence. With unprecedented dredging and artificial island building in the Spratleys, creating 3,200 acres of new land, along with an expanding footprint of its presence in Paracels since 2013, China continues to assert its dominance in the region.

Further, the Philippines occupying nine, Malaysia five and Taiwan maintaining one outpost in Spratlys in addition to  its having reclaimed eight acres of land and completed construction of a new wharf in late 2015 make the SCS a region with most complex and  volatile maritime disputes not only in Asia but the world.

South China Sea and United States 

The defense cooperation agreement between the United States and Philippines in February 2023 has provided U.S. access to nine Philippine bases, from the previous five. The same followed by the largest joint military exercise with the U.S. hosted by the Philippines in April with assurances from Washington that the mutual defense treaty “extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, armed forces and the Coast Guard”, seems to have emboldened Manila in its disputes with Beijing. The emerging confrontation through proxies between the U.S. and China, however, has the potential risks of tensions spiraling out of control.

Maj. Gen. Sudhakar Jee, VSM, is a former colonel of the Mahar Regiment who superannuated in 2020 after more than 37 years of active service. He has commanded troops in varied terrain, climate, and conflict zones. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral thesis on the India-China border dispute.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Images courtesy of Business Insider, CNN and Provided

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