In another world, the islands of the South China Sea are the kinds of places tourists would be sipping piña coladas, imagining themselves to be in paradise. Instead, it’s more likely than any other place on Earth to be the set for the apocalypse. Ever since 2012, when China seized control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, it’s begun a dramatic programme of building bases on land reclaimed from coral atolls, pushing aside rival claims by regional powers. The United States, it’s global influence on test, has sent in combat ships to block China’s push.
Tuesday’s order by a tribunal of five judges at The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which China has said it will ignore, might just be remembered by historians as the moment it became too late for the great powers to back away from the confrontation that shaped this century.
WATCH VIDEO: South China Sea Ruling: How Will It Impact India
In essence, the dispute is over who owns hundreds of small islands and atolls that stretch over some 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean-maritime territories that are thought to be rich in gas and oil, as well as fish. The real significance of this maritime territory, though, is strategic. Located at the crossroads of South, Southeast and Northern Asia, the sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea provide the shortest route between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, and function as vital arteries of world trade and energy shipments.
For two reasons, this gives whoever controls these seas vast power. First, instability or conflict in the area could threaten the free flow of maritime commerce with serious repercussions for the global economy. Second, whoever controls this territory has the power to choke that trade.
Policing the South China Sea is part of China’s lived historical experience. In the early 19th century, the great pirate Zhang Baozai extracted a terrible toll on trade out of Shanghai, using six fleets with over 70,000 sailors — perhaps the largest threat of its kind any nation has ever faced. An 18-metre ink painting scroll at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum tells of how Bailing, Viceroy of the Two Guangs, defeated the pirate lord.
Based on historical claims of discovery and use going back to the 2nd century AD, both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan assert sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea. The claim is represented by a nine-dash line, which encompasses more than 80% of the seas.
The Hague Tribunal studied these claims, and concluded that while China may have made use of the islands in the South China Sea, there was no strong evidence that it “had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources”.
Issues of possession have been muddied by the facts of possession in the modern world. Vietnam, which was evicted from the Paracel Islands — one of the two major archipelagos inside the Chinese nine-dash line — as a result of war in 1974, still asserts its claim.
Then, although China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all of the Spratlys, the second major archipelago, all of the claimants except Brunei have held at least one island since the end of the Second World War. Vietnam today occupies more than 20 islands, the Philippines 9, China 8, Malaysia 5, and Taiwan 1.
Interestingly — and what is key to the Tribunal’s order — under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, the Spratlys features are deemed rocks rather than islands. Thus, whoever holds them is entitled to just 12 nautical miles of territorial sea, rather than the 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone the sovereign of an island may exploit for fisheries, hydrocarbons and minerals.
Nonetheless, the Tribunal ruled key Chinese activities in the Spratlys illegal, based on its finding that Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and Reed Bank “form part of the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf of the Philippines”.
China has rejected the Tribunal’s verdict, a decision which has serious real-world implications for the international order. China participated in the negotiation of UNCLOS from 1973 to 1982, seeing it as a hedge against great-power hegemony over the seas, and ratified it in 1996. It agreed to the treaty’s binding arbitration clause, and cannot now back away from it without being accused of being a bad-faith partner in the international system. However, now a great power in its own right, it probably believes there’s no great price to be paid for a little bad publicity.
For its neighbours, the key problem is this: China has never clarified precisely what its nine-dash line in the South China Sea denotes, nor how it is consistent with UNCLOS, which lays out very specific parameters for maritime sovereignty. This is all the more because China has laid claim not just to territory, but to historical rights of fishing, navigation and resource exploitation that precede UNCLOS.
China’s neighbours may still be able to exercise influence over pushing their superpower neighbour to choose moderation. Should the Association of South East Asian Nations hold together, and back the Philippines, China may choose not to risk isolation. However, there are deep fractures within ASEAN, especially because the United States is seen as less than committed to Asian security.
This, then, will be the real test: just how much will the United States be willing to commit to the South China Sea, if China continues to push forward? In recent months, Washington has demonstrated some aggression, ignoring Chinese calls to back away from pushing warships through waters it claims. It has also continued pushing military surveillance flights over Chinese-held islands, in defiance of warnings from Beijing.
For its part, Beijing has held back from pushing matters to a point where Washington’s resolve will be tested.
The Hague judgment, though, has increased the stakes for all sides — and made the sun over the South China Seas just that little bit hotter.
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