In a paradisiacal region full of small islands warmed by hot weather for the most part of the year, but also subject to typhoons and powerful tropical storms, another type of thunderstorm is coming. It is a territorial dispute among several nations of the region that has not been addressed enough by the Western media. This issue is related to territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), a region rich in natural resources and with a heavy ship traffic providing the East and Southeast Asia regions with supplies from different parts of the world. One of the most important suppliers are the Middle East countries, that dispatch oil and gas through this region to sustain dependent economies, thirsty and eager for these raw materials, such as the Chinese, Japanese and Korean economies, which depend on external sources of supplies to continue working without any interruption. But what has been the subject of dispute? Basically three things: The territorial possession of the Scarborough Shoal, Paracel and Spratly Islands, called respectively Huangyan, Xisha, and Nansha Islands by the Chinese; the 200 nautical miles Economic Exploitation Zone (EEZ), and the Continental Shelf from the coastal states baselines. The majority of these small islands are composed of coral reefs, shoals and atolls. The territories are disputed partially or in total by China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. There is a claim from Indonesia and Brunei about the economic exploration of the 200 miles sea, without islands control interest.
But why do these countries strive so hard for the control of these islands which together do not exceed 13 square kilometers of land? The main reason of this dispute has been to control oil and gas reservations in the underground seabed and the economic exploitation of living and non-living resources available in these waters. According to the information published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which was updated in 2008, the Chinese estimate suggests that the SCS potential oil resources could be as high as 213 billion barrels of oil (bbl) and 2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas. The dispute for the islands has led to several skirmishes involving military forces of these countries. In this difficult dispute, each side presents different approaches to legitimate the territories possession. The belonging of the Islands has been claimed by China since Han Dynasty period, more than 2,000 years ago, which has adopted so far powerful military and diplomatic initiatives to ensure its control. The most forceful military action took place on November 1974 when Chinese naval forces had defeated warships from ancient South Vietnam, later taking control of the Paracel Islands. The current Vietnamese government does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the islands and also displays historical documents from XVI and XVIII centuries to prove its historical right over the territory. Currently, Vietnam holds firm control over the 21 small islets of the Spratly islands maintaining military forces there. The Philippines, in its turn, sustains control over 8 islets and claims that the islands have belonged them since Spanish colonization period. Malaysia controls 3 islets and Taiwan 1 island.
Referring to Chinese territorial ambitions, there is strong concern among the countries of the region in relation to the Chinese understanding about its territory extension. This issue comes from a map published in 1947 by Republic of China Kuomintang government. This map showed a territorial delimitation of the SCS with eleven dotted lines where the majority of the sea and its islands had been put under its territorial control. This government was defeated in the Chinese civil war and succeeded by the current communist government, which agreed with this delimitation and displayed in 1949 another map with nine dotted lines that has also caused a lot of controversy. On April 2009, Vietnam, through its permanent mission to the United Nations (UN), submitted a document claiming sovereignty over the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles and stated its position that Paracel and Spratly Islands are parts of Vietnam’s territory. Answering, in May of the same year, the Chinese permanent mission to the UN positioned that Vietnamese claim was incorrect, violated Chinese sovereignty and presenting formally, the controversial map with nine dotted lines. The recognition of this map would put under Chinese control the islands which have been object of dispute and would absorb almost all the 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from other coastal states, which has been claimed, not only for Vietnam, but also by all the others countries in the region. In practical terms, this recognition could convert the SCS into a “Chinese lake”.
The historical dispute over time
However, by the fact of Chinese government recognition of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) ratified in 1996, which defines the territorial limit within 12 nautical miles and the rights of economic exploitation over 200 nautical miles EEZ, as well as freedom of navigation, probably there might be good will on the part of China to discuss this matter in a balanced way, concerning any territorial negotiations and economic exploration. Nevertheless, if the countries in this region do not reach a territorial agreement soon, the risk of armed conflicts may grow, once many of these countries have deployed military forces into the disputed area to control the opponent’s military movement. China has a record of truculence in matters related to territorial disputes. In 1950, China invaded Tibet and aggressively took control of the country. During the 1960s, it was involved in several military skirmishes with the Soviet Union by border disputes, especially in Manchuria’s boundary. In 1962, the Chinese fought a brief war against India in Xinjiang border to control territories in the north of Jammu and Kashmir states, and seized a Switzerland sized area called Aksai Chin. In 1979 and over the 1980s, China and Vietnam faced each other using military forces in several situations to control strategic positions along their border. Hence, the Chinese’s history of territorial conflict resolution leaves no doubts about how they could behave after a decision to solve the SCS issue by force.
But not everything is so pessimistic. There have been some positive signs which could allow a peaceful solution for this dispute. On November 2002, the parties involved in this litigation met under the ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and through its member countries and the People’s Republic of China, signed a joint Declaration on the Conduct of the parties concerning the South China Sea (SCS). In this document, the countries agreed to solve the disputes peacefully, as well as carry out joint scientific research and environmental protection activities, navigational safety and improved communication at sea, fighting together against the traffic of illicit drugs, weapons, maritime piracy and transnational crimes in general. However, the resolution of the territorial disputes has been still pending.
On March 2005, China, The Philippines and Vietnam signed a tripartite agreement for joint seismic exploration of the ocean in an area of 140 square kilometers, which includes the Spratly islands. Since then, oil companies from the three countries have worked together on these research projects.
During the ASEAN-CHINA Summit, on November 2011, the government state heads, including the nations involved in the dispute, defined some actions to apply resources among their countries for the region economic exploration. These actions announced by China during the summit, included an additional 10 billion dollars credit and 4 billion dollars of preferential loans. The trade volume between ASEAN and China reached 292.8 billion dollars in 2010 and China’s Foreign Direct investment to ASEAN increased up to 4.4 billion dollars during the same year. The commitment to enhance the strategic partnership among the countries involved contributing to peace, security and prosperity in the region was formalized in this same summit.
All these policies and economic initiatives are important, insofar as the parties learn that, by working together, there are other ways to solve disputes and to increase regional development with excellent results for all countries involved. Even so, the problems created by the current territorial dispute are not changed, an issue that will have to be solved one day.
The territorial aspirations of Vietnam and China are much more daring. The first one wants to control the Paracel and Spratly Islands; the Continental Shelf and its resources beyond 200 nautical miles from its coast. The second country wants to control the same islands; the Scarborough Shoal and almost the whole of South China Sea (SCS). Both aspirations are very aggressive but are rejected by the other regional countries. The Chinese government, specifically, has been emphatic in regarding the territories under its entire sovereignty as an indisputable issue, in other words, such territories are not subject to negotiation, which raises tension in the region. The Chinese aspiration, in order to control the ocean and islands, in locations so far from its mainland, has been criticized by the media of the most Southeast Asian nations. The argument that the islands are in maps of the Chinese Empire since 2,000 years ago, during Han dynasty, is not enough to convince the other countries. The territories, almost all, are not inhabited by people from Chinese origin. People at different times over the centuries were in the region and people from different origin live and work there currently. If this aspiration was accepted it would set a precedent for other strange claims. Let us suppose that the Italian government comes to the public and presents itself as heir of the ancient Roman Empire and over this position claims control over North Africa and South Europe territories, because they belonged to the Roman Empire, according to the ancient maps. Where may this kind of claiming take us? Many other countries could present similar allegation! Common sense, by itself, shows that it is absolutely meaningless. Unfortunately, in international relations there is not always the possibility for appealing to the common sense of governmental leaders. The Chinese have used its power to put pressure on its neighbors and has sought to deal with each country about territorial issues on a bilateral basis. At the same time, the Chinese navy has been “stretching its muscles” using maritime surveillance ships to patrol strategic areas inside SCS to protect its fisheries vessels.
According to the information published by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the China’s GDP (gross domestic product), based on purchasing power parity in 2011 was $11.29 trillion, and the total GDP of the other six countries (Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and The Philippines) was just $3.16 trillion. The Chinese military spending in 2012, according the on line British Magazine – The Economist, will be around $160 billion. Only these military expenses are roughly 54% of the Vietnam’s GDP in 2011. The Chinese conventional armed forces, according CSIS – Center for Strategic and International Studies, have an effective of more than 2.2 million officers and soldiers, 8,874 battle tanks, 9,916 artillery pieces, 658 helicopters, 4,788 armored vehicles to transport troops. Its navy has 71 submarines (three of these with ballistic missile), 809 surface ships, such as destroyers, frigates, countermines warfare, transport ships, logistics support vessels, patrol and coastal ships, etc. Its Air force has 2,910 aircraft of all types, such as bombers, jets fighter, transport and electronic surveillance aircrafts, etc. China could take the disputed islands by force, if it decided to face a huge international crisis. At present, Chinese navy is developing its first aircraft carrier. This warship class will allow the country to project its power beyond its mainland territory, without depending on local bases to be used in aircraft operations. It shows the determination of the People’s Liberation Armed forces to develop a powerful navy to act in faraway regions, such as SCS and to offer protection and monitoring of its maritime routes, mainly those that bring oil and gas from Middle East. Currently these routes are exposed to the power of other maritime forces. This situation is very worrisome as this region is not just a Chinese route, but an international route. Every year more than half of tonnage merchant fleet of the planet flows through of the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits and across the South China Sea (SCS). Any major armed conflict in this region involving these countries may bring unpredictable political and economical consequences, not only for the parties involved, which have invested billions of dollars in their own regional development, but also for the entire world economy. Consequently, the current situation in the SCS region is a very serious issue to be solved and the perspective of a Chinese military expansion beyond of the mentioned straits has caused distrust, mainly in India, another nuclear power, where the media has behaved in an alarmist way with the possibility to see another naval power acting in Indian Ocean, its traditional sphere of influence. China is an economic, nuclear and military superpower and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This mean that China has global responsibilities, which must not be ignored but exercised with common sense, moderation, correction, flexibility and a high level judgment.
Let us see what is going to happen next.
Political and Social Scientist