In diplomacy, two and two is not always four. Sometimes it differs. Many constraints of related or unrelated, of subject or beyond subject are calculated and its implications are considered.
South China Sea (SCS) dispute and tension is an example of historic claim and modern judgement. The strangler trade dispute of US and China , Indo -Pacific Strategy at one hand, and gradually developing trade gap with China with the world, and increasing prominence of Belt and Road Initiative in the international affairs on the other , have become additional aggravating factors in the South China Sea dispute.
These days terrifying military exercises in the SCS by China, and the United States supported by Australia, UK, Japan, South Korea and India have created a great tension in this region with alarming threat of war of great scale.
SCS is a vast area measuring 3.6 million sq km. China claim is based on history and Law of the Sea Convention, and plus its so called nine dashed U shape lines. China claims of sovereignty over the sea and sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that antagonized competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This is a very strategic area from where world trade worth $3.37 billion passing through. Besides that , Parcel and Spartly and other islands have created a problem of ownership, and plus , China has recently built an artificial island in the middle of sea with a total area 3200 acres and now further using it for the strategic and military purposes by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles and radar systems.
Seeing the control of China over SCS, the Unites States has also stepped up its military activities and naval presence in the region these days, including freedom of navigation operation (FONOPs) in 2018.
US President Trump has emphasized the importance of such operations, and of ensuring free and open access to the SCS. The coastal states also don’t agree with the Chinese claim on islands and maritime rights on SCS beyond the Law of Sea.
In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted and signed, formalizing extended maritime resource claims in international law. At this time all coastal states had laid its claim to the disputed Paracel and Spartly islands but this dispute has not yet been solved. The Philippines against the Chinese unlawful claim, brought the case to the International Tribunal in The Hague in 2016.In a historic decision,2016, the Tribunal ruled against on part of China claim to the sea. Although, China has rejected the authority of the tribunal. In a recent statement American Secretary of State Pompeo denounced China claim on the disputed Spartly islands in SCS, suggesting Beijing had no legal ground to unilaterally impose its will on the region.
Now let us see what China claims on SCS .As it is a vast area, China claim to the sea is based on the Law of Sea and nine dash lines. Beijing wants to make it more than a maritime empire .It covets ownership. It wants SCS what Roman once called the Mediterranean Sea namely “Mare Liberum” or our sea. In fact, the source of dispute is traceable to the 1951 San Francisco Treaty , which failed to stipulate possession of the Spartly islands which Japan lost its tittle to them after defeat in the Second World War. China still maintains that under international law, foreign military are not able to conduct intelligence – gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ}.
In the context of this claims and protests by the concerned countries in the South China Sea, one has to see the arrangements made by the law of sea as international law. Under the law of sea convention, all states have a right to 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone’ ’to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories. Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants. Unfortunately, we don’t see this gentleman approach in solving the deep routed disputes.
In this grave situation, the UN should come forward to solve this problem. There are five main challenges as listed below.
- China is claiming its sovereignty based on highly disputable evidences from ancient times till recent claims from 1902-39. Japan occupied islands during Second World War, later occupied by Republic of China (Taiwan). Amidst this historical claim, no coastal states agree who owns the Paracel and Spartly island, although all claim in their favor.
- Second, there is a claim to the waters within the U-Shaped ‘river dash’ line which was drawn by the Chinese convention in 1947, nearby Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, but, this claim has no basis in international law.
- Third challenge is one of the actors in this conflict is Taiwan, which has been in dispute with China over sovereignty issues since 1949. Means, Taiwan is not formally recognized as state by many countries, therefore, not a signatory of the law of Sea Convention but Taiwan occupies one of the Islands.
- Fourth, there is a debate in international law about the type of law territory that can generate rights to an exclusive economic zone. The law of the Sea Convention mandates the land must be able to sustain human habitation. And in 2016, the international tribunal in the Hague found no island in Spartly group met this criteria.
- Fifth, how to exploit the natural resources hidden under the sea bed?
Conclusion: In the complexed and unpredictable world affairs, disputes on South China Sea has become ready to erupt anytime if any miscalculation takes place in the equilibrium walk of the regional fragile situation. Ambition and ego of powers, unfortunately, have become a determining factor for war or peace in the South China Sea. Sea is a common heritage of mankind and thus has to be utilized for the common benefit of the world, in particular, the coastal states. Law of Sea Convention has elaborated appropriate and sufficient formula to address the problems arises from the historical occupation or errors.
South China Sea should never be permitted to outbreak the war for self-interest. Vying efforts of China in the region, and rancorous attitude of US both are dangerous for the peace and prosperity of the region. A balanced and, give and take principle would be only the peaceful way to pacify the volatile situation of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan are the legitimate neighbors should be shared with the boons of the sea and seabed
At present, if the volatile situation emerged because of the stark efforts of China and extra territorial threat of the United States not addressed appropriately, it may go for a war which eventually destroy he humanity. Therefore, when the member states of the region are not capable to solve the historic disputes, then we expect the United Nations should come forward to save the world going to outbreak the war. Perhaps this is high time when the UN is celebrating 75th Anniversary with a theme ‘’Collective Commitment to Multilateralism’’ a highest level of conference should be organized with an aim to resolve the root causes of the South China Sea dispute for solving and delivering equitable maximum satisfaction to its coastal states
# Dr Thakur is former ambassador to Egypt and currently is the vice president of ambassador association AFCAN: Editor.