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  • Yit Xiang Wong

Need to Know: The South China Sea - Militarisation of Islands and Territorial Disputes

As featured in Edition 39, available here.

BY YIT XIANG WONG (1st year - Philosophy, Politics, and Economics - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

What is the South China Sea?

The South China Sea (SCS) lies in the Western part of the Pacific Ocean, with Southern China to the North (giving the sea its name), mainland Southeast Asia to the West, Taiwan and the Philippines to the East, and Borneo and other islands to the South. On a geopolitical level, it is an economic haven - responsible for trillions of US dollars in trade, ripe with unexplored oil reserves, and heavily tied to food security for its fishing industry. When academics speak of the SCS dispute, it is a blanket term that encompasses multiple disputes of archipelagos and islands between various stakeholders. The main countries concerned are China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. However, recent tension in the SCS arises from China’s claim to ownership over the vast majority, if not all, of it.

How is China Staking its Claim?

Most territorial disputes arise from historical claims towards the land or grey areas in maritime law. However, the Chinese claim to what they infamously draw out as the ‘Nine-Dash Line’ utilises the concept of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to justify its claims. An EEZ is an area of the sea in which a state has special rights over the region. This region is defined by 200 nautical miles from the coast of the state. China has created man-made islands in order to extend their EEZ. Additionally, China sends coast guard and marine survey vessels into disputed areas, disrupting other countries’ projects - such as the oil exploration project of Petronas, a Malaysian oil and gas company.

What is Southeast Asia’s Response?

China’s influence in the SCS is one of many political influences it exercises over the region, and thus cannot be viewed independently. Most academics have shown that the Southeast Asian nations affected by the territorial disputes have responded in a ‘hedging’ manner. As explained by Kuik Cheng-Chwee ‘hedging’ is “a behaviour in which a country seeks to offset risks by pursuing multiple policy options that are intended to produce mutually counteracting effects, under the situation of high-uncertainties and high-risks.” For example - Vietnam directly criticises China’s involvement in the maritime disputes in SCS, but refused to form any formal military relationship with the US and refrained from joining Western powers in condemning China’s handling of the pandemic.

What is the International Community’s Response?

Although the Southeast Asian nations refuse to align themselves with the US, as doing so would signal a strong opposition to China, the US has taken a more confrontational approach in recent years against Chinese encroachment. It has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations, sending aircraft strike carriers and navy ships to the region as a show of military strength, to remind China that these are international waters. Many outside nations have called for the use of international arbitration through the International Court of Justice, and to establish a temporary code of conduct within the region. However, talks about establishing such a code with China have always fallen short.

Predictions for the Future

The future of the SCS dispute hangs by a thread. A wrong decision by any state could lead to an all- out war. However, we must also consider that the recent escalations in the region are a result of China’s quick recovery from the pandemic, and its ability to gain leverage through the donation of vaccines. This makes it more difficult for Southeast Asian nations to oppose its influence. As the global economy recovers, China will gradually lose its leverage over the region. In the meantime, it is unlikely any nation will take drastic measures, instead only continuing to cautiously navigate these dangerous waters.

Image: Flickr (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command)



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