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How the South China Sea became a free-for-all

How the South China Sea became a free-for-all

In 1885 the powers of Europe met at the Berlin Conference in a rush to secure territory in Africa. The colonial powers sought to delineate their respective claims, in what was termed the “Scramble for Africa”. During the past several years there has emerged a new territorial scramble; not in Africa but in the South China Sea. Whereas the nations of Europe sought to negotiate, the states ringing the South China Sea have exhibited a more confrontational manner. The unresolved status of various islands, shoals, atolls, and reefs combined with the tantalizing hints of immense hydrocarbon wealth, alongside fisheries resources, has ignited a rush among the countries of the region. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines are caught in a web of overlapping territorial claims, resulting in increasing tensions in the region.

Whereas the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands to the north has garnered the most media attention as of late, this second and arguably more important series of disputes demands greater attention. Each of the countries listed above asserts often competing claims over various parts of the South China Sea, yet for all the chief contender is China. Beijing has laid claim over almost the entirety of the South China Sea, arguing that the region constitutes part of its territorial waters. In order to bolster these assertions, China has laid claim to the myriad of tiny outcroppings (and surrounding seas) that dot the region. China remains staunchly committed to its so called Nine-Dash-Line,i which encompasses a vast area, in many cases over-lapping with the existing exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of various states.

Chinese relations with the region are multifaceted and vary from state to state: elaborating upon all these bilateral relations is beyond the scope of this piece. In order to gleam the key themes in this dispute, it is useful to look at Chinese relations with one of Beijing's most vocal counterparts in the region – the Philippines.

The Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands are the main flashpoints between China and the Philippines. The uncertain status of the islands in the South China Sea are due to the fact that they managed to become no-mans-land during the first half of the 20th century. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the 1900 Washington Treaty (which amended the 1898 Paris Peace Treaty), saw the U.S. lay claim over the various islands of the Scarborough Shoal, previously administered by Spain. The Philippines argues that since these islands were administered from the colonial administration in Manila, that they fell under Philippine jurisdiction following independence in 1946.ii

With regards to the Spratly Islands, these came under Japanese control in the 1930s. After WWII, Japan was forced to relinquish sovereignty over the islands in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The problem was that the treaty instructed Japan to relinquish control, yet it did not specify to whom Tokyo ought to relinquish said control to. Consequently the Philippines declared the area Res nullius (no-mans-land) and therefore open to annexation.iii Conversely, China views the South China Sea as part of its territory, inheriting territorial claims from the Qing dynasty.

Whereas these competing claims have been around for decades, it was in the late 2000s that tensions began to rise and the “South China Sea Scramble” began in earnest. In 2009 the Arroyo government included the Scarborough Shoal (referred to as Kulumpol ng Panatag by Manila) in the Philippines Baseline Law – legislation designed to solidify the countries borders and maritime claims.iv A similarly assertive policy has been followed by the regime of President Benigno Aquino III, with Aquino stating that “China's 9-dash line over the entire South China Sea is against international laws, particularly the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea,” in 2011.v

China's disagrees, as elucidated by Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies on January 15th 2014. Wu states that “China's claim - defined by the South China Sea "nine-dash line" - was established long before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea took effect. In accordance with the inter-temporal law, the nine-dash line should be recognized by the international community.”vi

Tensions came to a head in 2012 when Chinese and Philippine naval forces were involved in a tense standoff, precipitated by the detainment of eight Chinese fishing vessels by the Philippine Navy near the Scarborough Shoal. Both countries' naval vessels in turn jostled over control of the fishermen and their fishing boats. In the end the Philippine navy was forced to back down. This confrontation resulted in China retaining de facto control over the shoal since 2012, as demonstrated by the erection of a barrier to the shoal's entrance in July 2012.vii

Furthermore, in 2013 in order to assert Philippine claims to the resource-rich territories, Aquino renamed the section of the South China Sea falling within the 370km EEZ as the West Philippine Sea, a move which encompassed the Scarborough Shoal and parts of the Spratlys.viii Scarborough Shoal is highly important for the Philippines because whereas the shoal only consists of 120 square kilometres of land, the shoal's EEZ is 494,000 square kilometers – thirty-eight percent of the Philippine's total EEZ coverage.ix

So far 2014 has presided over continued posturing and rhetoric, with both countries accusing the other of grave infringements of national sovereignty and international law. The Chinese have sent their new aircraft carrier to the region, and boasted of the increasing amphibious capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China also conducts regular patrols in the contested waters, with officers and sailors on board conducting on-board ceremonies, undertaking oaths to protect the national sovereignty at various disputed shoals in the South China Sea.x Moreover Chinese ships were cited in James Shoal (about 80km from the Borneo coast) on the January 31st. In response the Philippines has sought to bolster its defence spending, with the military stating on January 15th that it is seeking to acquire six frigates to secure the West Philippine Sea. This comes on the heals of Manila receiving two refurbished vessels as well as a $40 million military assistance package from the United States.xi Similarly, on January 17th it was reported that the Philippines is also building two air force facilities in order to upgrade maritime defence over the West Philippine Sea.xii

Manila's efforts towards military modernization and expansion are in response to increasing Chinese assertiveness, fuelled by increased military spending as well as Beijing's growing confidence on the international stage. Chinese comportment towards the Philippines and the ASEAN region in general vacillates between conciliatory overtones and assurances of its continuing commitment to regional peace and stability, and brash unilateral pronouncements and gunboat diplomacy. Despite such uncertainty, Chinese foreign policy in the post-Mao era has long been characterized by pragmatism and realist geopolitical considerations. Consequently, despite appearances, the author believes that Beijing sincerely wishes to maintain peace and stability in the region. China it does not want to overly antagonize the United States and its regional allies; thereby drawing Washington's gaze and ire further towards East Asia. Nor does Beijing want to undermine its efforts to cultivate soft power in the region by alienating ASEAN members states, as this would hinder its larger aim: namely to balance the American “Pivot to Asia”.


iRegina Bengco, “Aquino Mulls UN Protest on Spratlys,” Maritime Security Asia, (June 2011). http://maritimesecurity.asia/free-2/south-china-sea-2/aquino-mulls-un-protest-on-spratlys/

iiUlises Granados, “Ocean frontier expansion and the Kalayaan Islands Group claim: Philippines' postwar pragmatism in the South China Sea,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 9, no. 2 (May 2009) 267-294: 273.

iiiGranados, 286-287.

ivRenato Cruz De Castro, “China’s Realpolitik Approach in the South China Sea Dispute: The Case of

the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff,” Centre for Strategic & International Studies Conference June 5-6 2013, (June 2013): 3-4. http://csis.org/files/attachments/130606_DeCastro_ConferencePaper.pdf.

vRegina Bengco, “Aquino Mulls UN Protest on Spratlys,” Maritime Security Asia, (June 2011). http://maritimesecurity.asia/free-2/south-china-sea-2/aquino-mulls-un-protest-on-spratlys/.

vi Pu Zhendong & Wang Jian, “S. China Sea Rules no Threat to Peace, Experts Say,” http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2014-01/15/content_17237503.htm, January 15th 2014.

viiDe Castro, 3-4.

viii Tarra Quismundo, “Asia's Territorial Disputes – Philippines: Rhetoric and Posturing,”

http://www.asianewsnet.net/ASIAS-TERRITORIAL-DISPUTES—PHILIPPINES-Rhetoric-a-55451.html, December 31st 2013.

ix Barbara Mae Dacanay, “Declare Scarborough Shoal as Rocks not Island – Philippines,”

http://gulfnews.com/news/world/philippines/declare-scarborough-shoal-as-rocks-not-island-philippines-1.1136624, January 28th 2014.

x Austin Camoens & Kanayakumari Damodaran, “Chinese Warships Patrolling Contested Waters in South-China Sea,”http://www.asianewsnet.net/news-56660.html, January 31st 2014.

xi Ira Pedrasa, “Wanted: New PH Warships, Bigger Number of Troops,”http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/01/15/14/wanted-new-ph-warships-bigger-number-troops, January 15th 2014.

Associated Free Press, “Philippines Seeks US Ships to Counter China,” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia-pacific/2014/01/philippines-gains-more-us-navy-ships-20141157811844465.html, January 15th 2014.

xiiANC Dateline Philippines, “PH Beefs Up Maritime Defense over West PH Sea” http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/video/nation/01/17/14/ph-beefs-maritime-defense-over-west-ph-sea, January 17th 2014.

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