Yesterday a UNCLOS decision rejected China’s claims to much of the South China Sea, something which will likely cause further regional escalation.
By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
The South China Sea is one of the most disputed regions of the world. At least 6 countries claim significant sections of this sea, with the vast majority of these claims overlapping. By far the largest of these claims is China’s so-called ‘Nine Dash Line’ – a vague region demarcated by 9 unclear lines on maps, which encompasses the majority of islands within the South China Sea, as well as encroaches significantly on the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of countries like The Philippines and Vietnam.
Seeking to bring legal clarity to at least some of the region, the Philippines recently took China to an international tribunal on the issue at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. After months of deliberation, the court ruled that China had “no historic claim” over much of the disputed areas, and ruled that many of the ‘islands’ claimed and occupied by China in the region were in fact defined as ‘rocks’ under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Such definitions are important as they stop China from being able to claim a 200nm EEZ around these features.
Unsurprisingly, China rejected the ruling, describing it as a legally baseless and biased decision, and vowed to continue to protect its sovereignty in the region.
"China will take all necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests," read a front-page editorial in the state-run People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party.
The court was also accused of being a ‘puppet’ of external powers which and acting in ‘bad faith’. While China’s reaction was rather exaggerated in its media, it is far from the first country to ignore laws on maritime sovereignty. The United States, while backing the Philippines in the tribunal, itself is not even a signatory of UNCLOS, while the UK recently rejected a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on fishing rights around Mauritius.
Regardless, of the actual jurisdiction (if any) of the court and its inability to enforce its decisions, the ruling will nonetheless inflame tensions in the region, already seen as a watery tinderbox. Reflecting the legal and diplomatic conflicts within the South China Sea, many countries are arming up for potential future military conflict.
A regional arms race has seen countries like Vietnam and the Philippines significantly increase their arms spending, buying new submarines and surface vessels to patrol the increasingly crowded waters. Nonetheless, this spending is dwarfed by that of China, which is using its economic growth to modernize and expand its navy and air force, with a specific focus on the South China Sea. Most controversially, the country has built a number of artificial islands in region, complete with anti-aircraft systems, and military-grade runways. In response, the US has moved more troops to the region, as part of its ‘pivot to Asia’ and has conducted more frequent ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols.
The fear is that China could eventually unilaterally declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea – something it obliquely threatened following this week’s ruling.
"The ADIZ is not a Chinese invention, but rather that of some big powers. If our security were threatened, of course we have the right. It depends on our comprehensive judgment," said Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin at a press briefing at the Information Office of the State Council. "Do not turn the South China Sea into a cradle of war," he also warned.
The potential establishment of an ADIZ in the region, and the fact that it would likely be ignored by regional neighbours creates room for dangerous miscalculations. Given that nationalist sentiment is so strong in the region, a small mistake or low-intensity clash could quickly spiral into a much larger conflict that leaves little room for any side to back out. Indeed due to the web of alliances which the US has with many of the countries in region, they too could quickly be drawn into such a conflict.
One redeeming factor however is that no party has much to gain from the conflict, aside from it being a useful distraction from internal problems. If this assumption holds true, barring severe economic problems or internal instability in China, more aggressive and destabilizing actions are unlikely to happen in the short term. Furthermore, China has continuously stated that it believes bilateral agreements are the solution to the issue, rather than military force.
Nonetheless, the situation in the South China Sea is volatile and as this week has shown, subject to rapid increases in tension. Solving the overlapping claims peacefully will be incredibly difficult and time consuming, but will in almost every case be a better outcome than war.
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