Who will Control the South China Sea?

by Kenneth Earl McKelvie

The Spratly Islands are the center of a territorial dispute between China and a number of Southeast Asian countries, over control of the strategic South China Sea. Over the past two years, China started to flex its maritime muscles by engaging in a “construction frenzy on disputed land features” throughout the islands, which also resulted in the creation of manmade islands.[1] Yesterday, tensions between the Philippines and China resurfaced after a successful plane landing on a recently manmade island claimed by China.[2] This development occurred one month after Filipino protesters landed on Pagasa Island, one of the largest landmasses in the contested islands, to condemn the Chinese construction of these artificial islands.[3] These same protesters are now planning a second trip after China flew a “planeload of tourists” to the artificial island in question.[4]

Despite being mostly uninhabited, the Spratly Islands have the potential to be enormously influential because they are located in the center of the South China Sea and the numerous international trade routes. There is also a chance for untapped reserves of natural resources, which explains why none of the nations that boarder this body of water are willing to let a single slice of pie go.[5] While China faces a number of opponents in its battle over the islands, it has the seminal advantage of having vastly greater power, both in economic and military terms. These, however, are China’s only strengths.

This is because China’s claims are not marked by coordinates or otherwise clearly defined. International maritime laws and geographic proximity are not on China’s side. Instead, much of the Chinese claim over the islands is based on historical reasons, citing historical events such as naval expeditions conducted by the Chinese during the Ming and Han Dynasty. Though China declared the Spratly Islands as their official territory in 1947, it was not until 1974 that China exerted this claim over the region by killing dozens of Vietnamese troops stationed in the Paracel Islands north of the region.[6] Since then, China embarked on an aggressive strategy to assert its supposed sovereignty over the region, while continuing to claim their commitment to resolve the dispute.[7] Such aggressive actions include: Chinese soldiers reportedly assaulting Vietnamese fishermen and threatening crewmembers (2011); Chinese fishing vessels sailing in waters claimed by the Philippines (2012); China imposing a fishing permit rule over the whole South China Sea, despite objections from the U.S., Philippines, and Vietnam (2014); and, of course, the most recent creation of artificial islands in the region.

Unlike China, the Philippines’ claims of sovereignty are clearly defined, and in keeping with international and maritime law. The Philippines began claiming parts of the Spratly Islands after Tomas Cloma, a Filipino explorer, discovered them unoccupied.[8] Since then, Filipino claims over the Spratly Islands have been based on laws of archipelagic baselines, and the geographic scope of its exclusive economic zone; by 2009, the Philippines submitted the geographical coordinates for its archipelagic baselines, and used the “Regime of islands” principle under the UN Convention of Law of the Sea to show that the Scarborough Shoal[9] were within their EEZ.[10] Even so, in 2012, China contested Philippines’ claims, despite the nearest Chinese coastline being 900km away, and with the territorial disputes threatening to damage vital tourism and agricultural sectors, the Philippines had no choice but to acquiesce the territory.[11]

China’s various strategies to assert dominance in the Spratly Islands will only continue, as Chinese airports need to be kept secure by armed personnel—namely, the Chinese military. Even with the protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, China still maintains that it does not have any intentions of starting a conflict, and defends its actions in the region by stating that aircraft facilities will help maintain safety in the region.[12] China’s neighbors in the South China Sea zone are not acting like they are feeling safer.

[1] Manuel Mogato, “Filipinos plan second protest trip to islands disputed with China,” Reuters (January 21, 2016): Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-philippines-idUSKCN0UZ0V0.

[2] Mogato, “Filipinos plan second protest trip.”

[3] Jess McHugh, “South China Sea Dispute 2015: Philippines Should withdraw Military from Spratly Islands, Beijing Demands,” IB Times (December 28, 2015): Accessed January 20, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.com/south-china-sea-dispute-2015-philippines-should-withdraw-military-spratly-islands-2240811.

[4] Mogato, “Filipinos Plan Second Protest Trip.”

[5] McHugh, “South China Sea Dispute 2015.”

[6] Christopher Harress, “South China Sea Dispute Timeline: A History of Chinese and US Involvement in the Contested Region,” IB Times (October 27, 2015): Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.com/south-china-sea-dispute-timeline-history-chinese-us-involvement-contested-region-2158499.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Maria Ortuoste, “The Philippines in the South China Sea: Out of Time, Out of Options?,” Southeast Asian Affairs (January 1, 2013), 240.

[9] A small cluster of uninhabited islands that are part of the Spratly Islands.

[10] Ortuoste, 240.

[11] Richard Javad Heydarian, “Philippines delicately wedged between US and China,” Al Jazeera (January 20, 2016): Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/01/philippines-delicately-wedged-china-160117064747695.html.

[12] Vishakha Sonawane, “South China Sea Controversy: Chinese Military Likely to Take Off From Spratly Islands in First Half of 2016, Ex-Army Official Says,” IB Times (January 8, 2016): Accessed January 21, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.com/south-china-sea-controversy-chinese-military-aircraft-likely-take-spratly-islands-2256245.

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