Rival countries have squabbled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries - but a recent upsurge in tension has sparked concern that the area is becoming a flashpoint with global consequences.
What is the argument about?
It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas and the Paracels and the Spratlys - two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of uninhabited rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
Who claims what?
China claims by far the largest portion of territory - an area stretching hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan. Beijing has said its right to the area come from 2,000 years of history where the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation.
In 1947 China issued a map detailing its claims. It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan, because the island considers itself the Republic of China and has the same territorial claims.
Vietnam hotly disputes China's historical account, saying China never claimed sovereignty over the islands until the 1940s. Vietnam says both island chains are entirely within its territory. It says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century - and has the documents to prove it.
The other major claimant in the area is the Philippines, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping.
Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) - a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.
Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by theUnited Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.
Why are so many countries so keen?
The Paracels and the Spratlys may have vast reserves of natural resources around them. There has been little detailed exploration of the area, so estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighbouring areas.
Chinese officials have given the most optimistic estimates of resource wealth in the area. According to figures quoted by the US Energy Information Administration, one Chinese estimate puts possible oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels - 10 times the proven reserves of the US. But American scientists have estimated the amount of oil at 28 billion barrels.
According to the EIA, the real wealth of the area may well be natural gas reserves. Estimates say the area holds about 900 trillion cubic ft (25 trillion cubic m) - the same as the proven reserves of Qatar.
The area is also one of the region's main shipping lanes, and is home to a fishing ground that supplies the livelihoods of thousands of people.
How much trouble does the dispute cause?
The most serious trouble in recent decades has flared between Vietnam and China. The Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam in 1974, killing several Vietnamese troops. In 1988 the two sides clashed in the Spratlys, when Vietnam again came off worse, losing about 70 sailors.
The Philippines has also been involved in a number of minor skirmishes with Chinese, Vietnamese and Malaysian forces.
The most recent upsurge in tension has coincided with more muscular posturing from China. Beijing officials have issued a number of strongly worded statements, including warning their rivals to stop any mineral exploration in the area.
The Philippines has accused China of building up its military presence in the Spratlys. The two countries have engaged in a maritime stand-off, accusing each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese and Philippine vessels refuse to leave the area, and tension has flared, leading to rhetoric and protests.
Unverified claims that the Chinese navy deliberately sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations has led to large anti-China protestson the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam has held live-fire exercises off its coast - an action that was seen as a gross provocation by Beijing.
|Circular Atoll - Spratly Islands (Photo credit: Storm Crypt)|
Is anyone trying to resolve the row?
Over the years, China has tended to favour arrangements negotiated behind closed doors with the individual leaders of other countries. But the other countries have pushed for international mediation.
So in July 2010, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became involved in the debate and called for a binding code of conduct, China was not pleased. The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed her suggestion as an attack on China.
Agreements such as the UN's 1982 convention appeared to lay the framework for a solution. But in practice, the convention led to more overlapping claims, and did nothing to deter China and Vietnam in pressing their historical claims.
Both the Philippines and Vietnam have made bilateral agreements with China, putting in place codes of conduct in the area. But the agreements have made little difference.
The regional grouping Asean - whose membership includes all of the main players in the dispute except China and Taiwan - concluded a code of conduct deal with China in 2002.
Under the agreement, the countries agreed to "resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations".
But recent events suggest that Vietnam and China at least have failed to stick to the spirit of that agreement. And Asean continues to discuss new ideas for resolving the dispute.
A dangerous dispute in the South China Sea
|Map of various countries occupying the Spratly Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
For more than a month, Philippine and Chinese vessels have been confronting each other near the Scarborough Shoal—a small group of disputed rocks in the South China Sea. What began as minor incident involving a warning by a Philippine ship to a Chinese fishing boat has escalated into a diplomatic row that risks military conflict.
The Philippines recently held joint military exercises with thousands of US troops, provocatively involving an amphibious operation and an assault on an oil rig. Pro-government groups have staged inflammatory anti-Chinese protests in the Philippines, and outside Chinese consulates in other countries. China reacted by blocking Philippine banana imports and issuing travel warnings to Chinese tourists. The Chinese navy has held its own exercises, including landing drills, in the South China Sea, amid warmongering in the state media.
The dangerous standoff over the Scarborough Shoal is above all the responsibility of the Obama administration. Its confrontational stance towards China has encouraged South East Asian countries to press their territorial claims in the South China Sea. It is unthinkable that the Philippines, which is militarily and economically far weaker than China, would have acted so recklessly without the political and military backing of Washington.
|Chinese map of the Spratly Islands (Photo credit: Joe Jones)|
The sea lanes through South East Asia are central to the Obama administration’s so-called strategic “pivot” to Asia that is aimed at containing China militarily and undermining its influence throughout the region.
At a summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2010, Clinton proclaimed that the US had “a national interest” in preserving “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Thousands of ships routinely pass through these waterways unhindered. What Clinton was signalling was Washington’s determination to maintain naval dominance in the South China Sea, including through the deployment of US warships close to the Chinese coastline.
Clinton also intervened diplomatically, offering to help broker international talks to resolve longstanding maritime disputes involving China and South East Asian countries. Her remark was a signal to ASEAN countries to press their disputes with China, which insists that claims be resolved bilaterally. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reacted by branding the remarks as “virtually an attack on China.
Vietnam has also been establishing closer ties with Washington in order to consolidate its control over some of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Even India has made a tentative intervention, forming joint ventures with Vietnam to jointly explore oil in the South China Sea before backing off. All these moves have angered the Chinese regime.
Beijing regards the South China Sea as one of its “core interests”, that is, part of its territory that it would defend by force if necessary. China is heavily dependent on these sea routes for trade, especially for energy and raw materials from Africa and the Middle East, as well as manufacturing exports to Europe and other regions. The South China Sea by some estimates is believed to contain 23-30 billion tonnes of oil—or 12 percent of the global reserves.
By strengthening its control over South East Asian shipping lanes, especially key “choke points” such as the Malacca Strait, the US maintains the threat of a crippling naval blockade in the event of conflict with China. As part of its “strategic focus” on Asia, the Obama administration has signed an agreement with Canberra in November to station Marines and access bases in northern Australia near these waters. The US is not only building up the Philippine military capacity, but stationing its latest littoral warships in Singapore and boosting military ties with Vietnam.
The Chinese regime has responded to the “dilemma of Malacca” by seeking alternative land trade routes, including through Pakistan and Burma with which Beijing has longstanding ties. The Obama administration, however, is seeking to undermine this strategy. In the case of Burma, the US has dramatically improved relations with the military junta, resulting in Clinton’s visit in December—the first by a US secretary of state in half a century. As a result, Beijing’s plans for energy pipelines and rail lines connecting southern China to Burmese ports on the Indian Ocean are being called into question.
More broadly, the Obama administration is strengthening its military alliances in Asia with Japan and South Korea as well as Australia, and its strategic partnership with India. As a result, South Korea has adopted a more belligerent stance towards China’s ally North Korea, Japan has more aggressively asserted its claims against China over the disputed Senkaku Islands, and India has pressed its border dispute with China. Fearing encirclement, Beijing has responded by forging closer strategic ties with Russia, resulting in large-scale joint war games, including a major naval exercise in North East Asia last month.
The driving force behind the Obama administration’s reckless confrontation with China is the historic decline of US imperialism. Over the past two decades, Washington has repeatedly resorted to wars of aggression, especially in the Middle East, exploiting its military dominance in an attempt to shore up its economic and strategic position. The “pivot” to Asia has dramatically raised the stakes. By seeking to stamp its hegemony over Asia, the US risks triggering a catastrophic war between nuclear-armed powers.
Despite its economic dependence on China as the world’s premier cheap labour platform, US imperialism cannot tolerate any potential challenge to its dominant position within the existing global strategic and economic framework. By deliberately raising tensions throughout Asia, the Obama administration has inflamed the numerous regional flashpoints that extend from the Korean Peninsula to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and to rivalries in South Asia. An insignificant clash over Scarborough Shoal can rapidly become an international trial of strength as China defends its “core interests” and the US militarily backs its Philippine ally.
The very real dangers of war cannot be overcome by protests and appeals to governments. Its root causes lie in the worsening global crisis of the capitalist system and the resulting intensifying clash of strategic and economic interests. The only means of ending the rise of militarism and war is a unified revolutionary movement of workers in China, the US, Asia and around the world to abolish the profit system and its reactionary division of the world into rival nation-states, and to establish socialism internationally.
|Philippine flag planted on Scarborough Shoal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTE AND INDIA
Conflicting claims over islands and maritime zones in the South China Sea (SCS) has been a longstanding security issue between China, Taiwan and five Southeast Asian countries. The recent uptick in tensions in the SCS underscores the volatile nature of the problem, only conforming fears that it is a major “regional security flashpoint” with global consequences.
In a submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) in May 2009, Beijing claimed the entire SCS and made its first effort to include the region as a "core national interest", similar to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang province. In response, the US rejects the China's claims to sovereignty over the entire SCS emphasizing that the American national interest is served by the freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in theSCS.
China’s hard line on the SCS has affected India too. New Delhi was a bit taken aback after Beijing denounced plans by an Indian Company to develop oil fields in the region. The Chinese objection was toONGC Videsh’s (OVL) venture for off-shore oil exploration in water’s belonging to Vietnam (not recognized by China), Beijing urged India to refrain from entering into deals with Vietnamese firms exploring oil and gas in the disputed SCS over which China enjoys ‘indisputable’ sovereignty.
However, while China opposes India’s entry into the SCS, it insists on building strategic projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and on deploying troops there. There were recently unconfirmed reports of confrontation between the Chinese warship and INS Airavat in the international waters ofSCS. India has responded to Chinese objections by stating that its cooperation with Vietnam is in accordance with international laws. During SM Krishna’s visit to Hanoi on September 15-17, 2011, the External Affairs Minister of India underlined that OVL will go ahead with oil and gas exploration in the two offshore blocks (127 and 128) claimed by Vietnam. China, however, appeared unconvinced and announced plans to expand maritime exploration of 10,000 sq km of seabed in Southwest Indian Ocean.
The afore-stated developments need to be seen in the context of India’s stated naval doctrine. The Indian Navy document (2007) “Freedom to use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy”, lays down clearly that India's area of interest which “extends from the north of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea''. In the 2010 ARF meeting, India was among 12 (of 27 participating countries) that backed the United States’ multilateral approach, instead of China’s “bilateral approach” for resolution of the SCSdisputes. During the 17th ARF meeting, India joined other countries to openly declare that the SCSshould remain open for international navigation. The Indian position on the security situation in the SCSwas made clear by the Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao in her address at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi on July 28, 2011, where she reiterated the region’s importance as an important shipping route and India support for freedom of navigation in sea-lanes.
India’s Interests in the SCS
India has a strong interest in keeping sea lanes open in the SCS. The SCS is not only a strategic maritime link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, but also a vital gateway for shipping in East Asia. Almost, 55% of India’s trade with the Asia Pacific transits through the SCS. Apart from helping secure energy supplies for countries like Japan and Korea, India has the unique distinction of shipping oil from Sakhalin to Mangalore through sea routes of the region. Therefore, it is vital for India to have access to the region. If China continues to assert dominance over these waters, it will be difficult for India to continue with its activities through this channel.
India-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation
Maritime cooperation between India and ASEAN has been sparse and limited. Although Indian naval ships frequently visit the Southeast Asian countries ports and SCS, cooperation with regard to capacity-building and patrolling piracy-infested areas or jointly facing non-traditional threats at sea like drug-trafficking, human-trafficking and possible maritime terrorism remain inadequate.
India however, in recent years, has been seen as a credible counterweight to China. Southeast Asian countries, wary of continued Chinese aggression in the SCS, have encouraged joint maritime exercises with India. In February 2010, the Indian Navy concluded its Milan series of maritime exercises in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and almost all ASEAN countries participated in Milan exercise.
India, which has helped Malaysia in building up its Coast Guard in the past, must consider assisting other ASEAN countries. India has a strong Navy with technological credibility that can be leveraged by ASEAN. Collaboration on missile technology, radar systems, defence component systems and supporting hardware are again areas where ASEAN countries can work in partnership with India. China, naturally, does not welcome the ASEAN move to interact militarily with India.
India has also shown keenness to sell Brahmos missiles to friendly countries including the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. Most of the ASEAN countries have been engaged in a defence modernization programme and would like to obtain assistance in weapons up-gradation and systems integration. Like India, most of the Southeast Asian countries also rely on Russia for their defence procurements. India with its long experience in using Russian products and developed the technological capabilities for low cost servicing could be a potential ally for ASEAN in this field. Assisting ASEAN will also improve India’s relations with the Southeast Asian countries bilaterally and multilaterally and it will also boost India’s morale in balancing China in the IOR.
China’s recent acts in the SCS indicate that it is working on a ‘revisionist agenda’ in the region and trying to unilaterally change the status quo in the SCS. China’s rising economic and military might could compel the ASEAN countries to rally together as well as to seek assistance from the United States’ and other nations to balance China.
The US posture has, in turn, raised tensions in the region as China warned its neighbours not to “play with fire”. Further, Beijing believes that Washington is eyeing to control the Spratlys through Vietnam and the Philippines. If the territorial disputes relating to the SCS are not resolved soon to the satisfaction of all maritime stake holders including the littoral nations, a heightened global tension might result.
On India’s part, if New Delhi is concerned about the freedom of navigation in the SCS. It is only too aware that this is an issue that will profoundly impact Indian foreign policy. New Delhi realizes, now more than ever, that capacity building and maritime cooperation between India and ASEAN will be the key to stability in the region. However, the question arises, how will India sustain its position in the SCS, either through OVL or by backing Vietnam but this will require the political will and strategic vision.
Sources:BBC world news,World socialist Website,National Maritime Foundation(India)