With close to $5 trillion in merchandise moving through the South-China Sea (SCS) each year, it’s no wonder that China is increasing its claim to the hotly-contested waters. The only problem is the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam are also claiming sovereignty in the SCS.
Much like the century-long dispute between Japan and China over territory in the East-China Sea, the SCS is a political melting pot. But why? Well, there are several reasons. Economic clout and shipping trade routes being two of them. According to the World Bank, the SCS has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels. It is also the home of abundant fisheries and sees 50% of global oil tanker shipments pass through it each year. There’s no wonder that China, a country rapidly urbanising its cities and its military would see these resources as important.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each coastal state is granted an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles outward from their territorial sea. In this EEZ, the state has sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources in this zone. This gives a great boon to coastal states with EEZs, but what happens when six countries have EEZs that overlap? Disputes happen.
Because none of the aforementioned countries can agree where their EEZ ends, they all believe they have sovereign rights to parts of the SCS. China believes they are all wrong, and is willing to go to great lengths to drive home their position.
In 2012, upon the Philippines pressing their claims to the SCS, China depressed tourism to the Philippines, erected a fishing ban around Filipino waters and destroyed Filipino agricultural exports. Once Beijing has ensured confrontations over the SCS are being addressed bilaterally, they bully the other country into submission and then rely on their artificial military islands to deter the greater international community.
In 2016, the International Court of Justice ruled that China’s claims to the SCS had no legal foundation. They also ruled that China’s illegal fishing and creation of artificial islands in order to house Chinese aircrafts, promote military power and their patrols of the disputed territory with warships infringed on Manila’s sovereign rights. But who needs international law when you have military power and economic blackmail?
Despite China’s President Xi Jinping famously stating 'China will never pursue hegemony or expansion, nor will it seek to create spheres of influence', that’s exactly what they’re doing. Upon hearing the ruling, China dismissed the claim, stating that they still had ‘irrefutable sovereignty.’ China threatened the Philippines with war if they tried to enforce the ruling, and offered them a generous investment if they chose not to.
The Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is providing China with an added layer of subterfuge for economic coercion if the disputed countries stray from China’s policy goals. The bank is providing much-needed infrastructure for these countries, and can easily threaten to withdraw funding if the countries assert their claims.
What does this all mean for security in Asia? As China increases its military expenditure each year, partly on the basis of ‘protecting China’s sovereign rights,’ the countries bordering the SCS are doing the same. Total defence spending of ASEAN states have doubled over the last 15 years. The six countries in contention of the SCS have dedicated large chunks of military expenditure towards upgrading their naval capacity.
This trend is linked to growing uncertainty and security concerns in Southeast Asia over China’s rise and Chinese belligerence in the SCS.
Although China is unequivocally the aggressor in this situation, in actuality, if no other country challenges its assertions, then they are free to do as they wish. Due to the heavily disputed claims of overlapping EEZs, the parties in question must all agree to open a case, and then agree to the ruling. Realistically, this is unlikely to happen as each country has a significant amount to lose if it is not ruled in their favour. Further, China has shown it does not care about international rulings, and will deter any country from asserting a claim, while they consolidate their own.
If this situation continues, then the countries in question will feel insecure about their own security, expand their military as a result and then the arms race will continue. Next week ASEAN ministers will discuss a code of conduct to try and curb China’s behaviour. Time will tell if the code of conduct proves to be successful.
George is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics, based in Adelaide.