About: South China Sea (SCS)

  • It is one of the busiest waterways of the world connecting Asia with Europe and Africa.
  • One third of global shipping, or a total of US$3.37 trillion of international trade, passes through the South China Sea.
  • Its seabed is rich with natural resources like oil and natural gas. The US Energy Information Administration estimates the area contains at least 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  • The South China Sea also accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s fisheries, making it a key source of food for hundreds of millions of people.
  • About 80 per cent of China’s oil imports arrive via the Strait of Malacca, in Indonesia, and then sail across the South China Sea to reach China.

In Focus: South China Sea Dispute

  • The South China Sea dispute is about overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. (remember the mnemonic- CV PM TB)
  • These accounts are based upon several historic and geographic claims.
  • China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea using nine-dash line (NDL) as a geographical marker to assert its claim.
  • As per the NDL, China claims Spartly and Paracel Islands and also Scarborough Shoal.
  • Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
  • Philippines asserts ownership of the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal.
  • Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands.

Nine- Dash Line (NDL):

  • It is a demarcation line which was used by the Republic of China for the first time on an official map in 1947. (Refer to the U-shaped Nine Dash Line in the picture)
  • It illustrates the territorial claims of the Republic of China in the South China Sea.
  • It stretches as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Major problems with the nine-dash-line
  • Nobody has ever defined where the actual dashes are located using exact geographic data based on longitudes and latitudes.
  • China has never clarified whether it only claims sovereignty over the islets, reefs and rocks inside the NDL or the entire area falling within the NDL.
  • Many legal experts say the NDL does not comply with international law.

Spratly Island Dispute:

  • It is a territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc.
  • Since 1968, these nations have engaged in varying kinds of military occupation of the islands and the surrounding waters.
  • The exception is Brunei,that has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
  • Although the Spratly Islands are largely uninhabited, there is a possibility that they may have large reserves of untapped natural resources like oil and natural gas.

Paracel Islands Dispute:

  • The Paracel Islands is an archipelago which is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs and is located in the South China Sea.
  • It is almost equidistant from China and Vietnam.
  • Historic Claims
  • Beijing claims Paracel islands citing historical references dating back to 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty.
  • Vietnam claims that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.
  • Colonial powers of the French-Indochina further accelerated the tensions with regard to the Paracel Islands due to their colonial policies in the 20th century.
  • Dispute in Modern Times:
    • By 1954, tensions had dramatically increased between China and Vietnam over the archipelago.
    • In January 1974, China and Vietnam fought over their territorial disputes after which China took over control of the islands.
    • In retaliation, in 1982, Vietnam said it had extended its administrative powers over these islands.
    • In 1999, Taiwan jumped into the fray laying its claim over the entire archipelago.
    • Since 2012, China, Taiwan and Vietnam have attempted to reinforce their claims on the territory by engaging in construction of government administrative buildings, tourism, land reclamation initiatives and by establishing and expanding military presence on the archipelago.

About: United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982

  • It is an international agreement that defines the rights of countries to the world’s oceans.
  • It was signed in 1982 and came into effect in 1994.
  • UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.
  • It also demarcates exclusive economic zones where coastal states are given the right to exclusively tap fishery and fuel resources.
  • 165 nations, including the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed the convention. But the United States hasn’t.
  • Dispute Resolution under UNCLOS
    • All signatories of the UNCLOS have committed themselves to settle any issue peacefully.
    • One mechanism is to take a dispute to court, even if one of the contestants declines arbitration.

UNCLOS and SCS Dispute:

  • As per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the states can control the territorial waters within 200 nautical miles (370 km) off their shores. These are called the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
  • Where the zones overlap, as in some cases, neighbouring states need to decide on maritime borders.
  • It also states that areas that do not fall under EEZ should be international waters, shared by everyone and free for navigation.
  • Countries cannot claim sovereignty over land masses that are submerged or were submerged but that have now surfaced above high tide level because of illegal construction.

Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 Judgement:

  • In 2013, Philippines challenged China’s reconstruction of seven islands on the Scarborough Shoal at a UN backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague in the Netherlands..
  • In 2016, the tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines, saying China had illegally seized its maritime territory.
  • This invalidated China’s vast historical claims to the waters based on UNCLOS
  • China refused to participate in the case and dismissed the ruling as a sham.
  • China’s Stand
  • As per China, this dispute is not about the interpretation of UNCLOS, but about territorial rights and maritime borders of SCS.
  • And these issues exceed the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
  • Therefore, China rejected the verdict saying that the court had no authority to rule on the matter.

Follow up of the judgement:

  • According to the UNCLOS, the court’s ruling is binding on all contesting parties. Annex VII of the UNCLOS says the judgment is final and cannot be appealed.
  • Thus, in theory, both countries have to accept the court’s decision and adhere to it.
  • Nevertheless, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague has no power to enforce the verdict.
  • At most, the signatories of UNCLOS could punish China with consequences regarding its rights as a member of three UNCLOS bodies: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Seabed Authority and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
  • China could be prompted to withdraw its judge from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. Also, cases at the International Seabed Authority affecting Chinese interests could be shelved.
  • Beyond this, UNCLOS could not deliver much in the SCS dispute.