The latest news from the South China Sea reveals the determination of several world powers, acting in concert, to demonstrate a solid resolve to contain China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Beijing’s claim to the entire sea as its exclusive territory has remained a subject of controversy. Consequently, the West’s coordinated response has been to engage in “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOP) by their naval vessels.
On March 9, 2021, a French frigate, Prairial, anchored at Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam. The French ambassador to the country was explicit: “the frigate’s visit at this time is meant to deliver a message in support in freedom of navigation in the air and at sea,which is shared by both Vietnam and France.” A month earlier in February, the French Defence Minister Florence Parly announced that: “a French nuclear attack submarine and an accompanying support ship completed a patrol in the South China Sea”. The U.K, France and Germany have several programmed naval patrol missions scheduled for the later part of this year.
The U. S. has just concluded exercises by another set of aircraft carriers and vowed to step up regular naval activities in the disputed sea region. In its response, the Chinese government has accused France of supporting U.S. political and military strategy in the area. China has not ruled out reprisals on French economic interests domiciled in her territory if that becomes necessary. The latter has enormous investments in China.
In his opening address to Australia, India, and Japan’s leaders in a virtual summit, President Joe Biden announced that a “free and open Indo – Pacific is essential to our futures our countries”. All four countries make up the newly formed Quad group. This alliance is critical to Biden’s plan to counter China’s growing economic might. “The Quad is going to be a vital arena for cooperation, Pacific and l look forward to working closely with all of you”, he concluded. Veritable strategies will unfold at a formal summit scheduled for the later part of the year.
The stakes get scarier
The stakes continue to rise, and the risk of war between the U.S. and China gets scarier and more likely. Day after day, an increasing number of Naval vessels with bristling military hardware engaged in exercises in the South China Sea, alongside commercial shipping. Efforts aimed at dousing tensions have prompted a hasty arrangement for a summit between the two powers in Alaska, U. S. on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. As another U.S. naval Cruiser rumbled through the Taiwan Strait last week, the warning from China’s Peoples Liberation Army PLA spokesman came in strong, unambiguous language.
South China Sea Disputes
South China Sea disputes are many, and the region is a hotbed of potential territorial conflicts. The principal actor in these disputes is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The other disputant nations are Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. At the centre of the storm is Beijing’s imposed Nine-Dash Line, which claims ninety per cent of the water body’s 3.6 million sq kilometres. Other nations sharing coastline with the sea has also made legitimate claims to the strategic waterway. Consequently, the Manila government in seeking efforts to resolve its disputes with China presented a protest to the International Arbitral Panel at the Hague. The Panel ruled conclusively that:
- there is no evidence to substantiate Beijing’s claims to sole ownership of the South China Sea and all the resources in it. China’s claim to the territory allegedly since antiquity, dating back to over 2000 years, was therefore nullified. In other words, the Tribunal made clear that no such evidence was available before the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea was ratified in 1982. China is a signatory to the ratification.
- The nine-dash line arbitrarily imposed by China cannot serve as a basis for imposing maritime restrictions over the South China Sea. It stated further that “there are high seas there which belong to all mankind, existing with exclusive economic zones that belong to adjacent coastal states”. The implication is that the world’s naval powers can sail and fly and conduct naval exercises in the high seas and exclusive economic zones of the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation and overflight operations of the U.S., U. K., France, Australia, Japan, India, and Canada have restrained China from enforcing its nine-dash -line as its national boundary in the South China Sea. China’s third claim is that it had sovereign rights over the area predating the 1982 U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea UNCLOS. The law states that any country or island’s territorial waters extend 200 miles from its coastline into the sea. The nine-dash line is evidently less than 100 miles from the Philippines coastline in the South China Sea map above.
- The Tribunal ruled that China as a signatory to UNCLOS is legally bound to comply with the agreed principles of the Tribunal. The Tribunal ruling further specifies that all claims to territories that do not align with the new Convention ruling have stand nullified forthwith. All states that ratified the Convention are to therefore repudiate such historical rights and claims.
South China Sea Map
China has a reputation for drumming up border disputes and an equally disturbing disposition for turning them into dangerous flashpoints. The South China Sea map with Beijing’s imposed nine-dash line resonates with its Line of Actual Control (LAC), also set along the border with India over which a brutal war was fought in 1962. In June 2020, both countries’ combatants lost men in an undeclared war in the Himalayan mountain ranges 14,000 feet above sea level before the situation was brought under control.
The present controversy is hinged on China’s Nine-Dash Line with claims to over ninety per cent of the South China Sea, a strategic water body of 3.6 million sq km, handling thirty per cent of all global shipping annually. About forty per cent of the world’s liquefied natural gas is known to pass through the Taiwan Strait to the Pacific Ocean annually. U.S. trade through the vital waterway is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars yearly.
The vast deposits of oil and gas underneath the ocean bed remain critical to her industrial growth’s sustenance to the Chinese. Beijing will not negotiate access to these resources with any of the neighbouring states professing any right of claims to the territory and resources, living and non-living in the strategic environment and waterway. The map indicates a cacophony of overlapping claims by the neighbouring littoral nations—Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines are all in dispute with China. The nine-dash line enacted arbitrarily by China in the 1920s has become central to Chinese planning since oil exploration by different claimants began in the 1970s.
The Tenth Dash Line.
In 2013 China again unilaterally imposed a tenth dash line declaring Taiwan as part of mainland China to promote Beijing’s “One China Principle”. Taiwan is an island east of China and south of Japan. The country is also known as the Republic of China (ROC), with claims of historical independence. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), mainland China, insists Taiwan is part of its territory and has consistently threatened it with invasion and annexation. This year alone, the Chinese military has made air and naval incursions into Taiwan territory. The two parties’ contradictory claims remain an issue the international community will not resolve quickly considering its origin.
Civil War in China.
Taiwan was a territory of China. In 1895 the government in Beijing ceded it to Japan under very ambiguous terms after a humiliating defeat in the Sino – Japanese war. With Japan’s defeat and surrender at the end of WW II, it reverted back to China. The hand over took place at a time when China was in the throes of a civil war. Communism had spread to China. The Nationalist government run by the Kuomintang Party was besieged by Communist elements determined to take over power.
When defeat seemed inevitable, the Nationalist government had lost the war, fled from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949, with Taipei as its Capital. As it was in the Cold War era, western nations refused to recognize the Communist government headed by Mao Zedong. In 1964 the Communist government in Beijing tested its first Atomic Bomb. From that point on, the Nationalists in Taipei began to lose recognition. However, the Taipei government continued to represent China at the United Nations. Taipei says mainland China is part of its territory, just as Beijing insists that Taiwan is an indisputable China extension. Both should be governed as one country.
The turn around came when President Nixon of the United States embarked on a State visit to Beijing in 1971. In that same year, the United Nations Organization ceased to recognize the Nationalist government as representatives of the Chinese people. And, in 1979 President Jimmy Carter announced the government in mainland China as the only official and legal representative of the Chinese people.
Be that as it may, China is a nation on the march and seems unstoppable. Satellite images downloaded only on March 21, 2021, have shown that China has added land surface to the Subi Reef in the Spratly islands by seven acres. Malaysia and the Philippines also lay claim to Subi Reef. Building artificial islands means that the South China Sea Map is already being configured. Besides, the Philippines’ fishing waters have been occupied by a flotilla of more than 200 Chinese militia boats for over two weeks.
One is compelled to shudder in horror at what could become the fate of the South China Sea in the next ten years. China will go an extra mile to get what it wants, including a nuclear war. In 1964 after China tested the Atomic Bomb, Premier Chou en Lai remarked that “the world need not fear a nuclear Holocaust, because from the ashes of one civilization a new one will arise”. Chinese leaders are known to reason in one thought pattern. That leaves us with further food for thought.