Here's Your Pocket Guide to the South China Sea Tensions
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Here’s Your Pocket Guide to the South China Sea Tensions

Here’s Your Pocket Guide to the South China Sea Tensions

Beina Xu May 15, 2014

Territorial spats over the waters and islands of the South China Sea have roiled relations between China and countries like Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei in recent years, and tensions continue to escalate in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s announced “pivot” of focus to the region. A handful of islands comprise the epicenter of the territorial dispute, making up an area known as the “cow’s tongue” that spans roughly the entire South China Sea. The region is home to a wealth of natural resources, fisheries, trade routes, and military bases, all of which are at stake in the increasingly frequent diplomatic standoffs. China’s blanket claims to sovereignty across the region and its strong resistance to handling disputes in an international arena have mired attempts at resolving the crises and intensified nationalist postures in all countries involved, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. Experts say the potential for an escalated conflict in the South China Sea—while seemingly distant for now—presents an ongoing crisis for the region, as well as for U.S. interests in the area.

What territories are involved and disputed?

The South China Sea comprises a stretch of roughly 1.4 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, spanning west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia, and east of Vietnam. The South China Sea islands number in the hundreds, although the largest and most contentious territories include the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and Scarborough Shoal, all of which the six major Southeast Asian nations lay various claims to. The islands are mostly uninhabited and have never had an indigenous population, making the issue of historical sovereignty a thorny one to resolve.

The disputes aren’t limited to land, however; each country has an Exclusive Economic Zone, prescribed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), over which it has special rights to marine resources and energy exploration and production. An EEZ spans outward 200 nautical miles from the coast of the each state’s territorial sea, and may include the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit. These zones come into play during disputes over sea territory, as displayed in China’s December 2012 spat with Vietnam (WSJ) over oil and fishing activity in the waters near the Paracel Islands.

What is the 9-Dash Line?

The 9-Dash line is a controversial demarcation line used by China for its claim to territories and waters in the South China Sea, most notably over the Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel and Spratly Islands—the two most important disputed island groups. The line, which is contested by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea region and caused immediate controversy when China submitted a map to the UN in 2009 that included the demarcation. Beijing’s issuance of a new passport (Reuters) in late 2012 containing a map of the disputed region based on the line drew fresh international criticism and backlash.

ASEAN countries have contested this boundary, but China has insisted on the historical legitimacy of the line based on survey expeditions, fishing activities, and naval patrols dating as far back as the fifteenth century, putting it at odds with the boundaries UNCLOS has enforced for the region since 1994.

What resources are at play in the region?

The immediate source of conflict in the region is competition over resources, says David Rosenberg, professor of political science at Middlebury College. There are roughly half a billion people who live within 100 miles of the South China Sea coastline, and the volume of shipping through its waters has skyrocketed as China and ASEAN nations increase international trade and oil imports. The need for resources, especially hydrocarbons and fisheries, also has intensified economic competition in the region, particularly given the rapid coastal urbanization of China. “Behind it all, it’s essentially the industrial revolution of Asia,” Rosenberg said. “And the South China Sea has become the hub of that.”

According to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which offer tremendous economic opportunity for smaller nations like Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and energy security for China’s large, growing economy. In December 2012, China’s National Energy Administration named the disputed waters as the main offshore site for natural gas production, and a major Chinese energy company has already begun drilling in deep water off the southern coast. Competitive tensions escalated when India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp announced it had partnered with PetroVietnam for developing oil in the disputed waters. In June 2011, Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat of cutting cables from an oil exploration vessel inside its EEZ. Hostilities resurfaced in May 2014, when Chinese vessels fired water cannons at a Vietnamese flotilla that allegedly approached a large Chinese drilling rig near the Paracel Islands. The row affected Vietnam’s stock markets, which plunged after the incident.

Smaller-scale fishing incidents have instead become the hub of maritime confrontation as declining fish stocks have driven fishermen farther into disputed areas to search for supply, as well as highly profitable illegal species. In the most recent clash, the Philippines’ naval forces intercepted eight Chinese fishing vessels in the Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, finding what they viewed as illegally fished marine life on board. The attempted arrest of the poachers led to a two-month standoff between the two countries.

Annual fishing bans and arrests of fishermen are a convenient proxy for sovereignty claims since they can be presented as legitimate attempts to enforce marine resources protection, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. “This is an issue that doesn’t make big headlines, but 1.5 billion people live there and rely heavily on fisheries for food and jobs,” Rosenberg said. “That’s where most of the conflict goes on, and most of these have been dealt with on a routine conflict management basis.”

How does the dispute affect trade routes in the sea?

As much as 50 percent of global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, which sees three times more tanker traffic than the Suez Canal and over five times that of the Panama Canal, making the waters one of the world’s busiest international sea lanes. More than half of the world’s top ten shipping ports are also located in and around the South China Sea, according to the International Association of Ports and Harbors. As intra-ASEAN trade has markedly increased—from 29 percent of total ASEAN trade in 1980 to 41 percent in 2009—maintaining freedom of navigation has become of paramount importance for the region.

This is a very important issue, and has become the main concern of Japan, the United States and even right now the European Union,” said Dr. Yann-Huei Song, a fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. However, Yann-Huei says China is unlikely to instigate an interruption in traffic because its business, exploration, and importation rely entirely on freedom of navigation as well. Experts argue that the mutual benefits from regional economic integration provide an extremely compelling incentive for cooperation on resources, conservation, and security movements, according to a Harvard Quarterly paper.

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