The South China Sea is boiling. The sea is facing the political heat. It is not only a sea but a silk route as it is one of the world’s busiest waterways through which one-third or more than US$5 trillion (S$7trillion) of the world’s trade passes annually. The territorial disputes in the South China Sea among several countries have been ongoing for decades but tension has been increasing in recent years especially after 2009. Though In recent development Philippines has given signals for patching up china, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called off a plan to raise his country’s flag on an island in the South China Sea following a request from China.  Let’s see what the problem is ….

First know about the sea

The East and South China Seas are marginal seas, enclosed by archipelagos, peninsulas and islands. Both the South China Sea and the smaller East China Sea wash up against South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and China. All these countries claim territorial rights to mostly uninhabitable scraps of land in the China Seas. These islands and rocks have no intrinsic value and very few of them could sustain human life.

Who the claimants are

Mainly they are China, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei. While Indonesia does not have any claims to these disputed areas, China’s nine-dash line claim overlaps with the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia’s Natunas Islands.

In the South China Sea, the recent focus has been on two island groups the Spratlys and the Paracels. Although in April 2012 there was also a standoff between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, a feature claimed by both sides. China claims Scarborough Shoal is an island, while the Philippines maintain it is merely a rock. If the Scarborough Shoal is an island, it would confer an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on the country that can claim sovereignty. Within an EEZ, the state has full rights to all natural resources for 200 nautical miles around.

Well, under international law one of the definitions of an island is a feature that is capable of sustaining human habitation, but the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea doesn’t really go on to explain what that means or provide a more thorough definition. One would expect that an island that is capable of sustaining human habitation will have vegetation and fresh water, and actually that’s very few of the features in the Spratly Islands.’

Tension escalated in 2009 with China’s presentation of a map to the United Nations. The map showed its claim over almost the entire South China Sea represented by a U-shaped, nine-dash line. The other claimants raised their voice strongly against China.

Who claims what?

Are all the claimants fighting for the exclusive zone. An exclusive economic zone is an expanse of water and seabed within 200-nautical miles of a country’s coastline to which the country can claim exclusive rights for fishing and other economic activities.

According to Author Goh sui noi In Straight Times Taiwan’s claims are similar to those of China as they are based on the same 1947 official map. However, its claims are to the land features within the U-shaped line, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal.

Brunei and Malaysia claim parts of the Spratly Islands that overlap with claims by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam lays claims to all of the Paracel and Spratly isles while the Philippines claims almost all of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Most claimants occupy some of the reefs and islands that they lay claim to, with some having military garrisons on these land features.

WHY they are fighting?

The waters around these islands are rich with fish and shellfish and afford livelihoods to the fishermen of these countries. Laying claim to these islands would be laying claim to the fishing grounds around these islands. There are also potential oil and gas deposits beneath the seabed of the disputed areas,

According to the EIA, the South China Sea in total has about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas of proved or probable reserves. These are similar to the amount of proved reserves in Mexico.

Know why it is important

The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways through which one-third or more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of the world’s trade passes annually. Crucially, much of the oil supplies of the energy-starved North-east Asian countries of China, Japan and South Korea also go through this waterway. For these countries, keeping the sea lanes open and free of potential blockades is important. China is particularly worried about being blockaded as there are American allies to its east – Japan, South Korea and the Philippines – and the US navy has long been dominant in the waters of the region.

Why has tension escalated in recent years?

The South China Sea territorial disputes started coming to the fore in 2009 when Malaysia and Vietnam filed a joint submission to the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend their continental shelves beyond the standard 200 nautical miles from their coastlines.

China objected to this, saying it has breached on China’s sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea. It sent a diplomatic note to the UN that included the map with the U-shaped line claim to almost the entire sea, sparking protests from the other.

In 2011, the US announced a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and this was accompanied by a strengthening of US alliances and partnerships in the region. The growing US focus on the region led to a sense among the Chinese of collusion between the US and other regional claimant states over the disputes and this added to the unease in the region.

Through the years, China staked its claims in the South China Sea in various ways. Its fishermen ventured far from the Chinese shores protected by accompanying coast guard vessels. It imposed a unilateral summer ban on fishing in disputed waters and detained or chased away foreign fishermen from these waters during the ban period. China started building artificial islands on several land features it occupies and built airstrips and military facilities on them, leading to accusations that it was militarising the South China Sea.

Countries from outside the region entered the fray?

China’s assertiveness has led Vietnam, Philippines and other countries in the region, to seek closer security ties to outside powers such as Japan and the United States. Vietnam and the Philippines have bought coast guard vessels from Japan while the Philippines has strengthened its security pact with the US. Vietnam has also begun naval exercises with the US.

Japan, for its part, wants to ensure that the sea lanes of the South China Sea remain open, as much of its trade and oil supply go through them. It worries about China’s militarisation of the South China Sea and its potential to control the waterway. The US has maintained it does not take a position in the disputes but that it has a national interest in the freedom of navigation and overflight, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea. It has conducted several freedom of navigation operations close to islands claimed by the Chinese to challenge what it sees as China’s excessive maritime claims. It has also sought to strengthen its security alliances and partnerships in the region.

There are analysts who see the US actions as a pushback against Chinese assertiveness, which Washington sees as a challenge to its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.  Philippines is mending ties with China
Philippines is mending ties damaged by the territorial disputes with China. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called off a plan to raise his country’s flag on an island in the South China Sea following a request from China.

Philippines gives positive signals to China

In recent development Philippines has given signals for patching up with China. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called off a plan to raise his country’s flag on an island in the South China Sea following a request from China.

This is contrary to China’s aggressive behaviour which claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety. Duterte announced a few days back that he was canceling a plan to fly to a disputed island occupied by Filipino forces and villagers and raise his country’s flag in the Spratlys region. On a visit two weeks ago to the western Philippines’ Palawan province, which faces the disputed waters, Duterte told reporters that he planned to visit Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, internationally known as Thitu Island, in the disputed Spratlys to raise the Philippine flag on June 12 in time for his country’s celebration of Independence Day.

Duterte told the Filipino community during a visit to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia last Wednesday that the trip was off. “China sent word that, ‘please, do not do that,'” he said, adding that the Chinese government was concerned that if heads of state of rival claimant countries go to the disputed region “there’ll likely be trouble.” “So because of our friendship with China, and because we value your friendship, we will not, I will not, go there to raise the Philippine flag,” he said, adding that he may send one of his sons in his place.

What experts fear

What experts fear is that China has been turning barely submerged shoals in the South China Sea into militarized artificial islands, replete with military runways and docks large enough for aircraft carriers and nuclear missile submarines. Some analysts think China may eventually create underwater submarine bastions or harbors in the South China Sea, including at Mischief Reef and Scarborough. A Chinese military source and maritime experts said last year that China plans to turn Scarborough into a military base.

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