Long a bone of contention between various countries, the South China Sea dispute is becoming a threat to world peace. China’s aggression and hostility towards neighboring nations are raising eyebrows around the world. Let’s decode why is China after this part of the world and how will the dispute pan out in the future?
Have you ever heard about the fiery Cross Island?
If you will try to find these islands on a map it will be a difficult job, barely one square mile in size but it’s home to a Chinese military base. Astonishingly, there’s a 10,000-foot airstrip, an advanced radar station, a missile defense system, and about 200 troops. You might wonder why there is so much investment by China on such a small island. But perhaps the strangest thing about Fiery Cross Island is that two years ago, it was non-existent. And, no earthquake or volcanic eruption formed this island, China did.
A total of six other Chinese military bases that have been built on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
If you look at this satellite image from 2014 to 2016, you can see how China gradually developed these remote reefs in the Spratly islands an archipelago in the South China Sea into a fully functional military base. They used ships that rapidly pump sand and rock up onto the reef to form artificial islands.
Until China converted these islands into military bases within a year, the world did not take notice, but now even the United States is worried about China’s aggression in the area.
Why the South China Sea is so important?
All these islands are being turned to military bases because China wants to claim the South China Sea for themselves which is incredibly rich in natural resources. Underneath the sea lies a whopping 11 billion barrels of oil and a hundred 90 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Not to forget the 10% of the World’s Fisheries. One more strategic advantage this sea has that it is used as a trade route and almost 30% of the world’s shipping trade flows through here to the thriving countries and economic markets of Southeast Asia.
It’s a body of water which is extremely important and now five countries claim part of it. Today, most countries based their argument on the United Nations Law of the Seas that specifies that the territorial waters of the world stretch 12 nautical miles away from their coast to an area called the Exclusive economic zone or EEZ that extends up to 200 nautical miles.
Let’s take an example, any oil discovered within 200 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, for example, belongs solely to Vietnam, but any region outside Vietnam’s territorial waters is deemed to constitute foreign waters and is subject to United Nations maritime laws where everybody has a shared interest in them.
All the five countries sharing the bounties of the South China Sea region use this 200- nautical mile EEZ threshold to determine its claims except China. They argue that they have a historic claim to the South China Sea dating back to Naval Expeditions in the 15th century and they Market using a confusing border called the Nine-dash line.
Japan, which dominated the region as a whole back in the past, lost all control of its surrounding seas following the Second World War after facing a crushing defeat. China took saw this as an opportunity to claim the Sea of South China by drawing on the map that made 90% of the South China Sea theirs and was called the Nine-Dash Line.
And in 1973, when the United Nations established the 200-mile EEZ, China stuck to its own Nine-Dash Line, and chose to provide no clarity as to its limits in the South China Sea and ignored other countries’ claims.
Now that takes us to the islands of Spratly. This is a small cluster of islands that are scarcely populated, collectively in dispute between China Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. These small groups of islands sit in the middle of the South China Sea which has strategic and symbolic terms. Since any nation claiming the Spratly Islands will apply its EEZs to them and gain solely the adjacent territories, in turn, allowing economic activities that can bring much economic book needed during these difficult times.
But it is very difficult to legally claim uninhabited sand piles. Some nations have built small buildings and ports and even stuck a few people on their claimed islands, but China believes they have all the Spratly Islands, which bring us back to why they build the islands. Therefore. In these new artificial islands, they are setting up military bases and they have moved the argument to a new level, showing how China is likely to defend its claims with force.
The current Scenario
China has argued that the EEZ is equivalent to the territorial waters, but maritime law forbids it. China does this because, if it’s argument is accepted, then it can claim sovereignty of all the waters extending 200 nautical miles from every island in the South China Sea it builds or has built in the near past. The result is that China would exercise sovereignty over roughly 90% of the South China Sea and will be able to flow of ships and ultimately the world trade. As 30% of ships that the world’s goods is shipped through the South China Sea, it is imperative that these seas routes, which are common to the world remain free of any dominance and free for safe passage.
The US took note and being the lone superpower in the world and its enormous navy defends the international water while the US has no claim in the China Sea, it chose to keep out of any dispute of late but recently it seems there would be a confrontation with China. On the other hand, China considers the American presence in the region to be an invasion of its backyard. They too are prepared to aggressively defend their military bases and claims in the South China Sea.
Until now, disputes have not become violent in the South China Sea, but when countries begin to defend their claims by increasing troop number deployment of arms and provocation there can be tensions. More importantly, China’s stand and its claim on the island is not a sole act of aggression. We have to understand that China is confronting many issues like the Uighur issue, Coronavirus hitting the economy, conflict with India in the Galwan region, Hong Kong protests, and the trade war with the United States. They obviously cannot afford to enter into a major military conflict but China has proven the world wrong many times. Whenever we feel that China will back down and won’t confront they have come out more determined and ready to defend their claims more aggressively.