In the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, China has been busy increasing its presence in the South China Sea. This time the focus of its acquisitory attention are the two disputed archipelagos of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the middle of the South China Sea waters, between the territory of Vietnam and the Philippines. This past week, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries who have also laid claim to the same territory.
If the dispute were to aggravate, Asia-Pacific researchers believe it could have serious consequences for diplomatic relations and stability in the region.
There has been an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc. Since 1968, these nations have engaged in varying kinds of military occupation of the islands and the surrounding waters, with the exception of Brunei, that has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
Although the Spratly Islands are largely uninhabited, there is a possibility that they may have large reserves of untapped natural resources. However, due to the ongoing dispute, there have been few initiatives to explore the scale of these reserves and hence the amount of natural resources that the islands may have, are based on speculation and extrapolation by studying resources available in nearby islands.
In the 1970s, oil was discovered in neighbouring islands, specifically off the coast of Palawan. This discovery ramped up territorial claims by these countries. Over the years, US government agencies have claimed that there is little to no oil and natural gas in these islands, but these reports have done little to reduce the territorial dispute.
The Paracel Islands dispute is slightly more complex. This archipelago is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs and is located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam. Beijing says that references to the Paracel Islands as a part of China sovereign territory can be found in 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty. Vietnam on the other hand, says that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.
These islands also find mention in records starting from the 16th century by explorers who led expeditions to the East — the Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and Spanish, have all written about the Paracel Islands in various texts. Colonial powers of the French-Indochina further accelerated the tensions with regard to the Paracel Islands due to their colonial policies in the 20th century.
By 1954, tensions had dramatically increased between China and Vietnam over the archipelago. In January 1974, China and Vietnam fought over their territorial disputes after which China took over control of the islands. In retaliation, in 1982, Vietnam said it had extended its administrative powers over these islands. In 1999, Taiwan jumped into the fray laying its claim over the entire archipelago.
Since 2012, China, Taiwan and Vietnam have attempted to reinforce their claims on the territory by engaging in construction of government administrative buildings, tourism, land reclamation initiatives and by establishing and expanding military presence on the archipelago.
Following the recent establishment of new administrative districts on both Spratly and Paracel Islands, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Civil Affairs jointly announced that the Chinese government had “named” 80 islands, reefs and other geographical features around the two archipelagos with Chinese names. The last time China had unilaterally engaged in a similar initiative was in 1983 where 287 geographical features had been renamed in the disputed chain of islands.
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In the past few years, China has stepped up military aggression and has created artificial islands for military and economic purposes in the South China Sea, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries and other western powers. A few weeks ago, Vietnam had lodged a complaint at the UN stating that China had illegally sunk a fishing trawler near Paracel Islands, killing eight people on board. In March, China built two research stations on territory claimed by the Philippines.
Following China’s renaming of the islands, the US sent in an assault ship and a guided missile cruiser into the waters near Spratly and Paracel Islands, off the coast of Malaysia. Soon after, Chinese and Australian warships also entered the fray. Following the arrival of American warships, regional observers expressed concern that the US’s presence may only serve to heighten tensions. The US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, but is known to send its naval force into the waters each time there are provocative developments in the waters, particularly angering China.