The South China Sea Dispute in Short
Challenging the Red Dragon
For decades, South China Sea countries have disputed for control of the region, its maritime routes, and resources. China’s recent posture, disregarding juridical decisions and drilling against the will of its neighbors, led to an arms race.
The Story in 100 Words
In 1947, China issued a map claiming a large portion of the sea to the south of its borders. The area contains lanes involving one-third of global shipping passes, geostrategic zones for military drills, and, possibly, huge oil and natural gas reserves. Vietnam argued that the islands claimed by China were under Vietnamese control and the Chinese map was misleading. Deadly skirmishes were reported in the 70s and 80s. China’s increasingly assertive posture led to a regional arms race. Other countries, like the Philippines, demand part of the territories, request international aid and presence, and even sued China in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In 2016, the Tribunal ruled that China had no juridical basis to claim rights within the nine-dash line. A decision that was disregarded by the Red Dragon.
The Story in 500 Words
Despite not having any basis in international law, the Nationalist government of China drew a nine-dash line on a map claiming a large territory of the South China Sea. It included ocean areas, the Paracels and the Spratlys (two island chains known as the Xisha and Nansha in Chinese), atolls, sandbanks, and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal. Although mostly uninhabited, the area contains natural resources, trade and fishing routes, and zones that ensure military presence.
Nine-dash line map of Chinese claims in the region
Stating that the region has been historically under Chinese control, Beijing wishes to control the naval routes that account for US$3 trillion every year. Also, it hopes to use the sea as a military lab from which it can exert its influence. For instance, the Hainan island could serve as a bastion for its seaborne nuclear deterrent as well as a gateway for the Belt and Road initiative.
China’s main rival is Vietnam, which claims it had de facto ruled over the region since the 17th century. Furthermore, it argued that the map imposed by the Chinese has no precise coordinates for the lines and dashes, rendering the claim ill-founded.
Nevertheless, the conflict between those two countries traces back to 1974, when China sent military forces to seize the Paracels from Vietnam, killing over 70 troops. In 1988, it was the Spratlys’ turn to fall under Chinese influence with the death of dozens of Vietnamese soldiers once more.
These tensions resurfaced in 2012 and 2014 due to rumors of Chinese sabotage concerning two Vietnamese exploration operations and the installing of a drilling rig into waters near the Paracel Islands. It led to massive anti-China protests on the streets of Hanoi and collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels.
One-third of trade ships pass through the area, giving it its geostrategic importance.
Other countries are partaking in the dispute. The Philippines, for instance, claims a portion of the area, especially of the Scarborough Shoal reef, due to its proximity: five times closer to it than China. However, whereas the Vietnamese took their differences with Beijing to the streets, the Philippines took Chinese presence in its reefs to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in July 2013. Despite the 2016 ruling being favorable to the Philippines, China stated that it was not bounded by the decision.
To add to the group of competing claims against China, Malaysia and Brunei argued that sea territories within their exclusive economic zones as defined by UNCLOS should be excluded from the infamous nine-dash line map. Despite their attempts to multilaterally frame the issue, China prefers to negotiate bilaterally due to its size and clout, avoiding the ASEAN organization.
China has maintained an unwavering posture despite its neighbors' initiatives.
The mounting instability in the region and the Chinese rise of naval power brought anxiety among its neighbors. Vietnam, for example, bought Russian submarines and missiles while supporting the presence of the US navy in the area. The American activity in the South China Sea demonstrated their resolve to protect international waters and hoped to curb Chinese power.
Nonetheless, China has recently released a map including a new dash, built more artificial islands, and started employing drone surveillance in the region. In addition, China has organized “the largest naval parade in Chinese military history” in 2018, rallying 10 thousand marine officers, 48 ships et sub-marines, and 76 fighter jets in the presence of president Xi Jinping.
The Red Dragon takes risks to impose itself as an unquestionable global power through strategy to protect its natural resources and exports.