Geopolitics

Disputes in the South China Sea
VN:F [1.9.16_1159]
3 votes cast
Disputes in the South China Sea, 3.7 out of 5 based on 3 ratings
Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 25 Dec , 2012

China's Nine Dash Line

Prior to analysing the dispute it is important to understand the UN Law of the Sea. The 1982 Convention on the Law of Seas has numerous guidelines pertaining to islands, the continental shelf, enclosed seas and territorial limits. Pertinent articles as applicable to this dispute are Articles 3, 55-75, 76 and 121. Article 3 establishes that every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. Articles 55-75 explain the concept of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is an area up to 200 nautical miles beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea. The EEZ gives coastal states sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources.

The South China Sea is bounded by China in the North, the Philippines in the East, Vietnam in the West, Malaysia as also Brunei in the South East and Indonesia in the South West. The area bounded by the Sea is approximately three and a half square kilometres and forms a part of the Pacific Ocean. The area includes more than 200 small islands, rocks and reefs with many of them located in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

33 per cent of the world’s trade and 50 per cent of world’s traffic in oil and gas pass through the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is a highway for trade, shipping and telecommunications. 33 per cent of the world’s trade and 50 per cent of world’s traffic in oil and gas pass through the South China Sea. It is a source of fish and is expected to be rich in hydrocarbons. Oil deposits have been found in most of the littoral countries of the South China Sea. The region has proven oil reserves estimated at about seven billion barrels and oil production in the region is currently around 2.5 million barrels per day. Natural gas reserves are estimated to be around 266 trillion cubic feet. Being an enclosed area there are difficulties with regard to conflicting claims by various countries.

The Dispute

Prior to analysing the dispute it is important to understand the UN Law of the Sea. The 1982 Convention on the Law of Seas has numerous guidelines pertaining to islands, the continental shelf, enclosed seas and territorial limits. Pertinent articles as applicable to this dispute are Articles 3, 55-75, 76 and 121. Article 3 establishes that every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. Articles 55-75 explain the concept of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is an area up to 200 nautical miles beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea. The EEZ gives coastal states sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources.

Article 76 defines the continental shelf of a nation which comprises the sea and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical missiles. This is significant as it allows every nation to exploit the continental shelf. Article 121 states that rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life shall have no EEZ or continental shelf. In the case of the South China Sea, most of the claimants have established military outposts in order to conform to Article 121 in pressing their claims. The Convention also states that overlapping claims must be resolved in good faith.

In the case of the South China Sea, most of the claimants have established military outposts in order to conform to Article 121 in pressing their claims…

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, shoals, reefs and sandbars most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide and some of which are permanently submerged. The islands are located on a shallow continental shelf with an average depth of 250 metres. However, in the Spratly chain, the depth changes tremendously and near the Palwan Trough it is more than 5,000 metres deep. The sea floor contains Paleozoic, Mesozoic granite and metamorphic rocks. Out of the entire group only one island is volcanic and all the other islands are made of coral reef. There are no native animals except boobies and sea gulls.

There are numerous territorial issues in this region – settled or what could be termed as ‘partially settled’ issues are as elucidated. Natuna Islands contain Indonesia’s natural gas fields. The area had no dispute till China released an official map with maritime boundaries including these islands. Indonesia responded by conducting a large naval exercise in the region in 1996. Since then, China has not voiced any protest and drilling of natural gas continues unabated. Similarly Malampaya and Camago natural gas fields of Philippines are claimed by the Chinese. However, they have not objected to the drilling of gas. Further, many of Malaysia’s natural gas field’s located offshore Sarawak is claimed by the Chinese but Malaysians are drilling with no interference by the Chinese. Vietnam and China have resolved the Gulf of Tonkin dispute and similar issues have been resolved in the Gulf of Thailand.

The present dispute pertains mainly to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Parcel Islands were occupied by China in 1974 when Vietnam was at war with the United States. Both these island groups are disputed and are claimed by countries of the region. Brunei reportedly claims area of Louisa bank and Rifleman bank near Spratley chain as part of its continental shelf. Philippines claims 53 of the maritime features in the Spratley Islands which it calls the Kalayaan Island group as well as the Scarborough Shoal. Similarly, Malaysia reportedly claims sovereignty over 11 maritime features in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam claims sovereignty over all the maritime features in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over all the maritime features in the South China Sea. Taiwan is currently in possession of the largest maritime feature in the South China Sea, Itu Aba or Taiping.

Vietnam claims sovereignty over all the maritime features in the Paracel and Spratly Islands…

The map above shows the Chinese claims based on the Nine Dash Line. China has been aggressively pursuing her claims in the South China Sea. China’s claims are based on the Eleven Dash Line drawn in 1947 by the Kuomintang Government. The claim has been made by Chinese survey teams post Second World War who included all important areas of the sea as Chinese. This map was made after China’s victory over Japan and Vietnam was under the French, Philippines were badly shaken by the war and the rest were British colonies. Possibly the Kuomintang perceived that this would remain unchallenged due to the disturbed set of circumstances that prevailed on termination of the Second World War.

However, by 1953, China had fought the Korean War and Ho Chi Minh with his Vietnamese troops were threatening Dien Bien Phu as also many of the ASEAN countries were gaining independence that China reduced the boundary to the current Nine Dash Line. Thereafter, despite strong opposition from Vietnam, China moved into the Paracel Islands in 1974 while the Vietnamese were totally involved in fighting the US troops in South Vietnam. In this occupation 17 Vietnamese guarding these islands were killed. As on date, China has stabilised herself on this island.

In the 1980s, China improved relations with the US-led international community. A global sea level joint observation plan was adopted by the UNESCO Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission in February 1987, commissioned by the Chinese government establishing five marine observation stations. Nansha station of China is located on the Yongshu reef. In early February 1988, the Chinese launched the construction of Observatory No 74 on Yongshu reef. Vietnam learnt about this activity and its Navy began to patrol the Spratly Islands.

1 2
Rate this Article
Collapse
VN:F [1.9.16_1159]
3 votes cast
Disputes in the South China Sea, 3.7 out of 5 based on 3 ratings

About the Author

Maj Gen PK Chakravorty

Maj Gen PK Chakravorty, former Additional Director General Artillery.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

*

2000characters left