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The South China Sea is perhaps one of the more contested territories in the world, connecting the Chinese and Southeast Asian “security spheres.”[1] The six claimants to the area include China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei.[2] The archipelago, known for its material resources and treacherous waters,[3] contains “over 230 islets, reefs, shoals and sand banks.”[4] The prevention of maritime or naval conflict is essential as naval action in and around the Spratly Islands would likely halt all trade and communication through sea-lanes in the surrounding area[5] and prolonged conflict would have an increasingly dramatic effect on the economies and diplomatic strength of many Southeast Asian states.[6] The intractable conflict over the South China Sea has continued over hundreds of years with little intervention. The Permanent Court of Arbitration has recently provided much needed clarity to the UN’s position on the dispute.

Some claimants to the islands, like Vietnam and China, have based their territorial claims on history predating the French occupation of the Spratly Islands.[7] China reasserted its sovereignty on a map in 1950 with a Nine Dash Line surrounding most of the South China Sea and installed a naval presence on the islands in 1988. [8] This sudden escalation in Chinese foreign policy to include military power is attributed to the discovered potential for the profitable extraction of a projected 17.7 billion tons of oil.[9] The Chinese White Paper on Military Strategy calls the technological advancements in oil drilling “profound changes… in the international situation… [and the] Asia- Pacific geostrategic landscape.”[10] China attempted to demonstrate its sovereignty over the South China Sea, and its resources, through UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), which would give its claim international legitimacy.

On 11 July 2016, The Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international tribunal on maritime disputes set up by the United Nations under UNCLOS, ruled in favor of the Philippines against China. The tribunal declared that China’s claims to the islands, based on its history, are false.[11] The ruling indicates that China is no longer able to run military exercises in its previously cordoned off areas in the South China Sea,[12] only one day after China’s maritime military exercises had concluded.[13] It also ruled China has violated the Philippines’ sovereignty and destroyed the natural condition of the sea.[14] Although the tribunal’s ruling is not binding, it sets a modern precedent of international intervention in the South China Sea that is not for strategic or economic gain. The Spratly Islands conflict has long been regarded as intractable, with a global power at its center, but the tribunal’s ruling has made clear that the UN, and its member countries, seeks a solution and China cannot force its way to victory.

The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is the only “common legal framework” in the region that governs maritime activities.[15] UNCLOS was created to help resolve conflicts like the Spratly Islands dispute.[16] The Convention also expanded states’ “territorial waters to 12 nautical miles and… Exclusive Economic Zones to 200 nautical miles.”[17] China is unwilling to tolerate other countries’ operations in its EEZ causing the Chinese President Xi Jinping to reject the UN tribunal’s ruling.[18] As the tribunal ruled directly against China’s Nine Dash Line claim to most of the South China Sea, its claims to all territory in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, are disputed making the conflict more fractious.[19]

Legal disputes, nationalism, and tense diplomatic relations have made the conflict in the South China Sea multifaceted and impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all six claimants.[20] While China refuses to acknowledge the verdict, the ruling provides an international stance on the conflict and a balance to China’s supremacy in the region and violation of smaller states’ sovereignties. This indicates that the UN may place its weight against China to force a resolution, or at least a diffusion of tension, to the conflict.

 

 

[1] Odgaard, Liselotte. (2001) Deterrence and Co-operation in the South China Sea. Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 23(20) pp. 292-306, p, 292

[2] BA, Alice D. (2011) Staking Claims and Making Waves in the South China Sea: How Troubled Are the Waters? Contemporary Southeast Asia, 33(3), pp. 269-291, p.269

[3] Vietnam. Bô ngoại giao. (1975) White paper on the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands / Republic of Vietnam, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Saigon: The Ministry, p.67

[4] Acharya, Amitav. (2001) Constructing a security community in Southeast Asia. London: Routledge p.133

[5] Bennett, Michael. (1992) The People’s Republic of China and the Use of International Law in the Spratly Islands Dispute. Stanford Journal of International Law, 28(425). pp.425-450, pp.425-6.

[6] Smith, Esmond D. (1994) “China’s Aspirations in the Spratly Islands, p.287

[7] Marlay, Ross. (1997) China, the Philippines, and the Spratly Islands, Asian Affairs, 23(4), pp. 195-210, p.201

[8] Smith, Esmond D. (1994) “China’s Aspirations in the Spratly Islands,” pp.279-80

[9] Marlay, Ross. (1997) China, the Philippines, and the Spratly Islands, Asian Affairs, 23(4), pp. 195-21, p.200

[10] Zhang, Tao. “State Council Information Office Issues “China’s Military Strategy”—Beijing’s 1st White Paper on Military Strategy.” Andrew S. Erickson: China Analysis from Original Sources. May 26, 2015.

[11] NA. (2016) South China Sea: Tribunal backs case against China brought by Philippines. BBC. (July 12) [Accessed from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-36771749?ocid=global_bbccom_email_12072016_top+news+stories%5D

[12] Molleman, Steve. (2016) China illegally cordoned off a huge part of the South China Sea for military drills—and will likely do so again. Quartz. (July 12) [Accessed from: http://qz.com/728289/china-illegally-cordoned-off-a-huge-part-of-the-south-china-sea-for-military-drills-and-will-likely-do-so-again/%5D

[13] NA. (2016) South China Sea: Tribunal backs case against China brought by Philippines. BBC. (July 12) [Accessed from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-36771749?ocid=global_bbccom_email_12072016_top+news+stories%5D

[14] Ibid

[15] BA, Alice D. (2011) Staking Claims and Making Waves in the South China Sea: How Troubled Are the Waters? p.271

[16] Furtado, Xavier. (1999) International Law and the Dispute over the Spratly Islands: Whither UNCLOS? Contemporary Southeast Asia, 21(3), pp. 386-404, p.387

[17] Sanqiang, Jian (1997) Multinational Oil Companies And The Spratly Dispute, Journal of Contemporary China, 6(16), pp.591-601, p.592

[18] Hunt, Katie. (2016) South China Sea: Court rules in favor of Philippines over China. CNN. July 12. [Accessed from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/12/asia/china-philippines-south-china-sea/index.html%5D

[19] Ibid

[20] BA, Alice D. (2011) Staking Claims and Making Waves in the South China Sea: How Troubled Are the Waters? p.269

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