The South China Sea Dispute is a territorial conflict that involves maritime and island issues between China and other countries interested in the unclaimed Paracel and Spratly islands. When Japan lost its control of the contested territory in 1951, the San Francisco Treaty failed to outline ownership, which led to the dispute after various countries, including China, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, expressed interest to dominate the area. The Paracel Islands stretch across 250,000 kilometers in the South China Sea. At the same time, the Spratly comprises 200 islets, a chain of coral reefs, and seamounts, which make the unclaimed territory to be very attractive. The first conflict on the unmarked part was witnessed in 1970 when countries began extracting natural resources from the free area. However, China’s construction efforts have contributed significantly to the South China Sea dispute because it influenced other countries’ perspectives on the unclaimed territory. China’s construction activities have been focused on land reclamation, where the Asian tiger is keen on establishing its dominance in the area. Despite the unsettling nature of the tense interactions between China and the interested countries, the U.S. and its allies appear to be forming pacts that will eventually sideline China from claiming any control over the unclaimed territory.
In the resolution of the South China Sea Dispute, scholars have identified four aspects that feature prominently in the attempts adopted by the different interested parties to convey their agenda to the relevant legal and political institutions. Notably, the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) has created a framework that allows each of the affected parties to convey their agenda and focus on establishing various arguments that can justify their interests on the different parts of the disputed territory (Lin & Spangler, 2016). In so doing, many scholars have identified the interconnectedness of the legal issues arising from the dispute and its impact on the overall interactions among the involved parties. Likewise, the geographical scale of the disputed territory is also a cause for concern because of its role in expanding the territorial dispute. For instance, Malaysia through North Borneo has claimed interests over the Spratyl Island, which has exposed it to a potential rife with other countries because of its rich supply of natural gas and oil. From this realization, understanding the procedural sequence of part XV of the UNCLOS treaty highlights the measures that should be embraced in resolving the nature of interactions between sovereign states involved in territorial disputes. Thus, identifying the different measures that focus on creating an elaborate distinction between the conflicting aspects is critical to resolving the South China Sea Dispute and overcoming various challenges that interfere with the various aspects undermining the establishment of healthy interactions in the region.
Causes of the Dispute
China’s claim of 90% of the potential energy-rich south china sea ignited the south china sea dispute. China bases its claim regarding the nine-dashed line on China maps that carve out around 3.5 million square kilometer shorelines as its territory. This has locked China in a dispute with the neighboring southeast Asia nations such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam, who also claim the territory. The claim to the settlement dates back centuries ago to the Han Dynasty, but the international community refutes the claims as unlawful (Fang, 2015). China has backed its legitimacy to the territory by increasing its military presence by building military bases on the islands and reefs such as Spratly and Paracel. The U.S has refuted the claims by China terming them as unlawful. This has led to increased military presence in the territory, risking an international crisis with China. Therefore, the inability of the Asian countries to form a consensus has been fueled by the growing unwillingness from the Chinese government to negotiate with the other interested parties to avoid a global crisis.
Since the 1970s, China has been on the front line in influencing the outcomes within the South China Sea through its involvement in different activities that affected other interested countries’ perspectives in the Asian region. For instance, when oil was discovered in the early 1970s, the Philippines was the first country to conduct exploration activities before China followed with a well-calculated move that invaded strategic regions in the islands (De Castro, 2016). During the invasion, China went into war with Vietnam, killing over a hundred soldiers before claiming various parts of the Paracel Islands after sinking a Vietnamese corvette warship. In a retaliatory response, both North and South Vietnam moved with speed to occupying other unclaimed areas, equipping the country with bargaining power in the South China Sea (Teixeira, 2019). In yet another attack, China invaded the Spratlys, where it occupied Johnson South Reef after killing soldiers in the process. The tensions created by the invasions extended beyond the need for negotiations and created a hostile situation that affected the nature of relations among countries along the South China Sea stretch.
The Philippines was the first country to explore the traditional approach in 2013, where it filed an arbitration case against China. In this case, the Philippines based its arguments on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), where it had anticipated to receive a favorable outcome that would set essential precedence regarding the ensuing conflict ownership of the South China Sea (Savage, 2017). Initially, China had provided a nine-dash-line response after it was put into task by Malaysia and Vietnam in a joint submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Currently, the Philippines has authorized drilling plans and ignored China’s prominent role in the South China Sea, presenting a high level of power play that could influence the outcomes of events in the region (Dark, 2020).
Fig 1.0 A graphical presentation of the nine-dash-line issued by China in response to the move by the joint submission from Malaysia and Vietnam. Source/Maps Online
Later in 2016, the UN-led tribunal favored the Philippines in its ruling. It invalidated the nine-dash-line response issued by China regarding the call that held the Asian tiger to account for its actions on the South China Sea tussle (United Nations, 2017). Since the Philippines invoked the UNCLOS clause on territorial disputes, observers are curious to know how the international legal framework will influence the outcomes of the dispute. However, UNCLOS has no jurisdiction to solve sovereignty issues caused by territorial disputes (Lee, 2017). However, UNCLOS is positioned as the greatest equalizer because of its role and influence in addressing the South China Sea conflict by responding to specific issues held by the three main parties. From this realization, the global legal bodies’ inability to intervene in the dispute has compelled the U.S. federal administration to intervene and offer a wide range of solutions that can be embraced by the conflicting nations to overcome the ensuing conflict that could easily lead to a global crisis.
Economic, Legal, and Political Perspectives on the Dispute
The South China Sea is one of the busiest waterways globally because of its strategic position that connects Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world. Apart from its seabed being full of natural resources, the waterway controls a third of global shipping, which translates to US$3.37. From this realization, the South China Sea plays a significant role in creating opportunities in the worldwide market that promote international trade and encourage interactions between individuals in their immediate environment. Over 80% of oil imports arrive at the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia before they are channeled to China through the South China Sea (Kardon, 2018). In this regard, the waterway is a critical access point for China because of its ability to provide access to the rest of the world. Continuous exploration has indicated that the South China Sea contains high-value natural resources such as gas and oil responsible for driving up economic growth and development. Given that China is already an established country exposing it to oil and gas exploration will significantly impact its overall growth, which improves its dominance in the geopolitical environment.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the South China Sea has over 11 billion barrels of oil and can yield over 180 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Evaluating these statistics exposes one to an enabling environment to understand the source of interest for China and other Asian countries within the region (Coutaz, 2018). Oil-rich areas such as the Middle East have succeeded in creating a conducive business environment that supports the different needs of their citizens. From this perspective, China and its neighboring countries will benefit immensely from the oil and natural gas exploration that will expose them to various opportunities to enhance their growth and development. In the same vein, the South China Sea constitutes 10% of the total fish population harvested worldwide, a move that highlights its significance to the Chinese government and neighboring states (Tcacik, 2020). Creating an enabling environment where conversations can be held allows the international community to make informed decisions that benefit them.
The International Law applicable is the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) regarding the sovereignty of internal waters, territorial waters, and ocean resources (Guilfoyle, 2019). The U.S is not part of the UNCLOS. Still, it maintains China must abide by the treaty and continues military activities to demonstrate freedom of navigation and protection of southeast Asian allies’ sovereignty rights to offshore resources (Mossop, 2018). On the other hand, China maintains that under international law, the U.S is in direct violation of non-military operations in exclusive economic zones such as the South East Sea. Since China has been constructing and overseeing land reclamation projects in the hotly contested South China Sea, it will be impossible for the international community to rule out China’s ownership in areas where it has initiated its construction activities. To this end, the Chinese government claims a certain level of sovereignty that differentiates it from other governments interested in the ownership of the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands.
The interconnectedness of the legal issues in the South China dispute present a harrowing scenario that influences the thought process of individuals regarding the role of every involve party in the geographical conflict. Importantly, territorial disputes take place when the representatives of a certain country are involved in activities that despise the sovereignty of another country. In this case, China is heavily involved in the South China Sea Dispute because of its approaches that have undermined its relations with other countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan. The international law is used to resolve such conflicts because of its promotion of sovereignty that is obscured by the efforts of one to country to undermine another nation’s sovereignty. Likewise, territorial disputes weaken the legal framework of the international law, a move that explains the massive involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other legislatives institutions such as the United Nations Conventions for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea Dispute.
Alternatively, the United Nations Conventions for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has explored the negotiations approach to mitigate the prevailing legal issues affecting the quality of relations between the countries involved in the South China Sea Dispute. On many occasions, territorial disputes assume different forms that challenge the nature of approaches that can be used to resolve the underlying issues and boost relations between individuals in their immediate environment (Zhao, 2018). The South China Sea Dispute arbitration process is one of the outcomes that have failed to yield favourable results because of their inability to overcome issues, which interfere with the thought process of individuals in their surroundings. Currently, the primary focus of the arbitration process is on the territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation to create a safe space that allows individuals to focus on various aspects that influence their thought process towards the issue of contention.
Since China responded with a nine-dash-line map that demonstrated its position in the heavily contested South China Sea, different outcomes have been recorded, including the decision by the UN-led tribunal to invalidate the Chinese response. Presently, China appears to take a more accommodating approach that demonstrates its willingness to negotiate with other territories interested in the world’s busiest waterway. China seems to be taking a more-keen focus on the Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Spratly Islands, and Macclesfield Bank in its latest response. Beijing is prepared to file a case for the legal recognition of specific areas in the four regions (Strating, 2020). The “Four Shas” approach has attracted a lot of controversy from other countries interested because of the impact of the outcome on their sovereignty and ability to negotiate with the Asian superpower. Hence, the approach taken by China and its rivals in the ownership of the busiest waterway will influence the decisions that will be made by the international community to prevent a global crisis from taking place.
Given the growing influence of the U.S. and its expression of interest in the South, China Dispute has compelled individuals to explore the list of the country, which has no border with South China. China’s decision to reclaim land from various parts in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands has attracted mixed reactions from the international community because of the approaches that continue to influence multiple outcomes in contemporary society (McDorman, 2017). The U.S., which is tens of thousands away from South China, plays a vital role in influencing decisions that should be adopted in the dispute affecting the six countries. In August, the U.S. federal administration, through its Department of Defense (DoD), criticized the military exercises that were being conducted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the South China Sea (Beech, 2020). From this observation, international relations professionals have speculated the emerging interest from the U.S. in the South China Sea dispute that has existed for more than 70 years to be strongly influenced by China’s hostile relations and the U.S. federal administration.
While the U.S. was criticizing the Chinese administration for its military antics on the South China Sea, the federal administration, through its DoD, flew reconnaissance planes above the South China Sea to send a message to the different countries involved in the dispute. In an unexpected twist of events, the U.S. trespassed the hotly contested waterway using its USS Mustin, which was a show of might as it declared China’s ownership claims as illegal. Unlike in the past, where China was portrayed as the dominant nation in the dispute, the U.S.’s emergence as an interested bullish player has quashed China’s ambitions to oversee the contested region (Scobell, 2018). Given the conflict on the South China Sea is triggered by unverified aspects of the existence and development of the waterway, it is now impossible for the invested countries to solve the maritime dispute because of the involvement of other economies in the geopolitical context. For instance, the U.S. has accused China of bullying its neighbors who have rightful ownership of the contested region. However, due to their significantly low military power to that of China, they cannot object to any moves made by the Chinese government.
Resolving the South China Sea Dispute
The best possible resolution would be arbitration of all parties involved under the UNCLOS. The claim holds no legitimacy as some islands are low tide elevations, and others are categorized as inhabitable rocks and have no entitlement to maritime zones. China has also reclaimed land in the south china sea, which is not covered as a naval empire. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ought to declare the claim as illegitimate. China should respect the treaty by backing out of the aggressive tactics in resolving the issue as China is a member country of the UNCLOS treaty (Morton, 2016). By considering the claims being made by the U.S. and other members of the international community, there is a need to achieve a balanced environment where decisions can be made to regulate the robust nature of the Chinese superpower. Acknowledging that countries have a right to navigate through the world’s busiest waterway will bring viable solutions that are considerate of the approaches that should be used to overcome problems affecting national relations in the Asian region. However, given that the resolution of the maritime dispute on the South China Sea involves aspects of sovereignty, the future appears bleak for countries invested in reclaiming specific positions of the waterway.
When exploring the quality of relations between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea Dispute, scholars have outweighed the benefits of incorporating various aspects that focus on overcoming the tense interactions between the two countries. Notably, the international law framework dictates the approaches that should be used to overcome the issues and focus on establishing an enabling environment that hinders individuals from discovering their desired goals and objectives. However, the two countries should cease and desist from conducting drilling operations in undelimited regions because of its impact on the arbitration process (Zhang, 2019). Given the Haiyang Shiyou is a mobile oil rig, China should move it from the contested areas to avoid noncompliance with the UNCLOS provisions outlined in Articles 60 and 80. In the same vein, Chinese military vessels should cease creating interference to Vietnamese ships to avoid any aspects that may escalate the conflict, as outlined in the navigation freedoms.
Despite the unsettling nature of the tense interactions between China and the interested countries, the U.S. and its allies appear to be forming pacts that will eventually sideline China from claiming any control over the unclaimed territory. From this realization, the nature of relations between China and its neighbors has become hostile over the years. Each one is prepared for a military takeover of the hotly contested South China Sea. Presently, the U.S. has shown interest in the heavily disputed waterway and embarked on approaches that demonstrate its might to the involved parties and the rest of the world. Even though various methods have been proposed to overcome issues affecting the nature of relations among the involved parties, it is impossible to resolve the maritime dispute because it involves aspects of sovereignty that none of the countries along the South China Sea are willing to forego. Therefore, identifying the issues that affect the nature of relations among the interested parties in the South China Sea will reveal the best practices that should be used to resolve the conflict because of its impact on activities taking place in the geopolitical context.