Tug-of-war in the South China Sea

Tug-of-war in the South China Sea

The tumult in the Middle East and North Africa following the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and subsequent rise of radicalism created insecurity not only for the region, but also for the whole world with its spillover effects. The international developments in recent years such as Russia’s aggression in its near abroad, the migration flow toward Europe, the rise of populist parties/figures in the United States and Europe, and the internal disarray of the Western bloc have all taken place in front of our eyes. However, for some reason, the steadily increasing tension in the Far East has escaped attention in most parts of the world. 

Indeed, the contention over the delimitation of maritime boundaries and competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea has moved from a potential to a probable source of conflict in Southeast Asia. A July 12 judgment by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1994 to adjudicate the disputes arising from the interpretation and application of the convention on an arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China in 2013 has ignited the debate again.

China argues that it has historical rights over the South China Sea thanks to its “nine-dash line,” a projection based on a map that emerged in the 1940s, and insists on bilateral negotiations to resolve the dispute. The contested area mainly consists of the Paracel and Spratly island chains that are on strategic shipping routes and fishing grounds. Thus the coastal countries Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have forwarded overlapping claims.

Also, China has been trying to expand its maritime presence and sovereignty in the region through the construction of artificial islands and facilities such as ports and radar installations, prompting anxiety among its neighbors. The U.S. is also involved and has accused China of militarizing the region. While China has denied such accusations, the U.S. sent a warship to the disputed area for a Freedom of Navigation Operation in October 2015. Although the U.S. stresses it is maintaining a hands-off policy in the territorial disputes, the concerned coastal countries have pressured the U.S. to counter-balance China and honor its security commitments to allies like Japan and the Philippines. The U.S., too, is very concerned about moves that might consolidate China’s superiority in the region.

The latest ruling of the tribunal is a landmark decision against Chinese claims over the Spratly Islands. It declared large areas of the sea as international waters or exclusive economic zones of other countries. While it could create a global diplomatic pressure on China to decrease its military moves in the area, the Chinese government has already declared that the ruling will not affect “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights” in the region and announced fresh military exercises in the disputed area.

The Philippines has already tried to capitalize on the ruling by inserting a reference to it in the joint statement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers gathering on July 25. But China’s influence over members such as Cambodia prevented such an inclusion. Instead, both ASEAN and China issued separate statements about exercising self-restraint and refraining from “activities that might raise tension in the region.”

Obviously, all the interested parties have a great desire to prevent escalations in the region. Thus, channels of dialogue should be kept open, and the players should avoid brinkmanship. The U.S. could also play a significant role in encouraging the parties to stick to their mutual commitments to reduce the risk of tension in this exceedingly fragile atmosphere.