Thursday, 28 July 2011

Border Focus: South China Sea

Chinese actions have led to protests in Vietnam

What is disputed?

The South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnam) is a semi-enclosed sea in the Pacific Ocean, and covers over 3.5 million square kilometres.

Seven states make claims to part or all of the South China: China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. China makes the biggest claim: Beijing sees 80 per cent of the region as historically belong to it. The dispute has led to numerous navel clashes over the past 50 years and plenty of diplomatic tension.

While ownership of the sea itself is disputed, there are also territorial disputes in the region, the two most important of which revolve around the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.

The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands, which lie between Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Malaysia and Brunei. There are no native islanders, although some 45 islands are occupied by military forces from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The Spratlys are claimed in full by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei (who claim a fishing zone around Louisa Reef). Various islands within the Spratlys are currently administered by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The Paracel Islands are a much smaller grouping of islands, made up of some 30 islets and reefs. The archipelago is a similar distance from the coastlines of Vietnam and China (through its southern-most island of Hainan). Taiwan, Vietnam and China all claim the islands, although China has administered them since 1974.

Why is it disputed?

The South China Sea is the second busiest shipping route in the world (after the Mediterranean) and the economies of the Asia-Pacific region depend on the daily journeys of up to 200 large-tonnage ships that come through the waters.

It also contains vast hydrocarbon reserves: it has 7.7 billion barrels of proven oil, with an estimated 28 billion barrels in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 266 trillion cubic feet.

The area is also significant in terms of fish stocks and marine biodiversity.

What is the history of the dispute?

What is at issue in the South China Sea is a conflict between what some countries see as historically belonging to them, or at least lying within their sphere of influence, and other countries applying modern international maritime law.

In 1982, the UN adopted its Convention on the Law of the Sea which accepted a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). If no country is assumed to own the disputed islands, most of the Spratlys would fall into the Philippines and Malaysia's EEZ, whereas the Paracels lie in Vietnamese and Chinese waters.

Vietnam, Taiwan and China, however, claim the disputed islands as their own based on 'historic rights' which would then give them the right to claim the waters around the islands.

The idea that any country can claim the region based on 'historic rights' is hard to justify, given that the islands were viewed as little more than uninhabitable hazards to fishermen until the twentieth century.

Interest in the two archipelagos heated up in the 1930s when China released official maps which showed the whole region as Chinese territory, despite the fact that France, then ruler of Indochina, actually governed both archipelagos.

China claimed that its southernmost maritime boundary was 4 degrees north latitude, thus extending all the way south to include the James Shoal, which lies just north of Malaysia.

China released its famous 'U-shaped' map in 1947, which outlined its claims to the region. It started as an 11-dotted line map, but was amended to a nine-dotted line in 1953, omitting claims over some of the Gulf Of Tonkin, which has since seen a maritime boundary agreed between China and Vietnam.

At the 1951 San Francisco Conference, set up to end the war between Japan and the Allied Powers, Japan renounced all claims to the islands. A proposal to return both archipelagos to China was put forward, but was rejected.

In 1956 the picture became further unclear as a retired Filipino admiral took possession of four fifths of the Spratly archipelago on behalf of the Philippines.

Vietnam and China fought for dominance of the Paracels throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however in 1974 China took advantage of internal instability in Vietnam and took full control of the island group.

Vietnam and Taiwan had occupied some of the Spratly islands since the end of WWII, however in 1988, China used its navy to occupy a number of islands Vietnam had previously administered.

In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), in which all sides agreed to seek peaceful solutions to disputes.

A number of states have submitted what they see as their territory to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. China submitted a note, with a map of the nine-dotted line, in 2009, to which Vietnam immediately protested.

What has happened recently?

Tension has risen over the disputed islands in recent years, as states have looked more closely at the potential gains from confirmed ownership. Last July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US supported freedom of navigation in the area and offered to facilitate multilateral talks on the dispute, an offer which was sharply rebuked by China.

In March 2011, two Chinese patrol boats confronted a Philippino vessel in Reed Bank, near the Spratly Islands. The Philippines sent two aircraft to the area, and filed a protest with the UN.

In May, China was accused of aggression again, when video footage emerged of a Chinese boat appearing to cut the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship, the Binh Minh 02.

The incident prompted anti-China protests in China, and both Vietnam and the Philippines have carried out military exercises near disputed waters in recent months.

The Phillipines' President Benigno Aquino said in July that his country will defend what it sees as its territory, and that it will shore up its military capabilities to ensure it is able to do so. There has been talk of the US supporting the Philippines's military.

The South China Sea has become the crucial talking point on whether China's rise can be peaceful, and Beijing's insistence that foreign powers – primarily the US – stay out of the discussion is not winning it any friends. Indeed, it seems to be pointing the other claimants closer to the US, and heightening regional tensions.

For further information, including possible settlement routes, see the full Border Focus, here.

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