South China Sea: A Trouble-filled Paradise

The South China Sea can be best described as a trouble-filled paradise. It possesses assets such as rich fishing grounds being enjoyed by people from the countries surrounding it for generations, beautiful tourism-worthy chains of islands and reefs that generate revenue and employment, and potential oil and natural gas reserves that can be tapped by countries around it for their economic well-being. However, it is these same assets that form the main reason for the diverse and complex territorial disputes involving Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The South China Sea can be best described as a trouble-filled paradise. It possesses assets such as rich fishing grounds being enjoyed by people from the countries surrounding it for generations, beautiful tourism-worthy chains of islands and reefs that generate revenue and employment, and potential oil and natural gas reserves that can be tapped by countries around it for their economic well-being. However, it is these same assets that form the main reason for the diverse and complex territorial disputes involving Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The sovereignty claims of China and Taiwan over the whole of South China Sea, both having a historical background, are ambiguous but they, especially China, are more than willing to enforce them, specifically through the deployment of more paramilitary vessels, with the military only sitting and watching in the background. The sovereignty claim of Vietnam over the whole of South China Sea, akin to that of China and Taiwan, is also based on historical claims and is relatively ambiguous, although there seems to be clarity as far as its claim on the Paracel Islands since its former colonial ruler, France, specifically said that the island chain belongs to the Southeast Asian country. The claims of Malaysia and Brunei are based primarily on the continental shelf rule, which can be relatively defended well when it comes to international law. Only the claim of the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and portions of the Spratly Islands is well-defined and based on international law, giving the country the opportunity to take advantage of approaches such as arbitration as a way for the country to make its claim legal and internationally-recognized.

The diverse and complex nature of the territorial claims of the six countries makes the South China Sea a potential site for a full-blown military conflict. However, the kind of confrontation that may arise is not even global or regional in terms of scope but more of rare quick shootouts involving two of the claimant-states in an effort to establish hegemony over contested areas. Such conflicts may even be shorter than the worst military skirmishes that occurred in the area such as the Battle of the Paracel Islands and the Johnson South Reef Incident, both of which involved China and Vietnam.

What is expected to occur more often are incidents of harassments among the military and paramilitary forces of claimant-states, and unarmed civilians such as fishermen, tourists and amateur radio operators. This is the case that currently exists between China and the Philippines, where vessels from both the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and civilian and paramilitary agencies such as the China Coast Guard allegedly harassed vessels belonging to the Philippine Navy (PN), Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and Filipino fishermen in areas such as Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef, Reed Bank and Second Thomas Shoal. However, alleged cases of harassment may not be sufficient to be used as basis in launching a full-blown military conflict, although such incidents may result to quick shootouts among claimant-states.

Among the six claimant-states, China is the most aggressive in enforcing its sovereignty claim, which covers virtually the entire South China Sea based on the "Nine-Dash Line", proof of which is the increased presence of Chinese military and paramilitary vessels that operate in all of the contested and even on non-contested areas. It is also the claimant-state that is least likely to entertain approaches to arrive at a lasting solution to end the territorial disputes such as multilateral negotiations or dialogue and international arbitration or adoption of a "South China Sea Code of Conduct" along with other claimant-states. It is clear that China, which treats the South China Sea as its "lake", will continuously field and expand its fleet of paramilitary vessels to enforce its sovereignty claim, with the PLAN and other branches of the military watching on the background and only acting when "provoked".

The Philippines is the claimant-state that is in the worst position when it comes to enforcing its claims. It already lost Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal to China due to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the PCG and BFAR being ill-equipped when it comes to external defense and law enforcement capabilities; Filipino politicians lacking political will to address such military and paramilitary deficiencies; excessive dependence on the United States, more specifically the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), for assistance; and, until recently when Rodrigo Duterte became President, lack of a credible and strong foreign policy for several years. For now, the Philippines is limited to using diplomatic channels and international law in enforcing and legalizing its territorial claim, especially with President Duterte balancing the situation by being friendly with China and other claimant-states, but this cannot be a lasting solution because military and paramilitary might is, still, the best option to take in such situation.

Among the "smaller" claimant-states, Vietnam, which occupies the largest number of South China Sea features, is in the best position to challenge the increasing aggressiveness and assertiveness of China and protect its own claim in the South China Sea. Its decision to recapitalize on its military and paramilitary assets, and upgrade its military bases, specifically the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, will enable it to have enough muscle to ward off the Chinese. However, what puts Vietnam further on advantage is its decision to forge a strategic alliance with the Philippines, a fellow claimant-state, in dealing with China, although the Philippines must also be aware of Vietnam's own aggressiveness and assertiveness, as shown in the past when Vietnamese troops expelled Filipino soldiers from Pugad Island, Vietnamese military and paramilitary vessels also allegedly harassing Filipino fishermen near their occupied features.

The inevitable consequence of the growing tension and aggression among claimant-states is the arms race in Southeast Asia. Despite the availability of more peaceful means of resolving conflict, military presence and occupation is, still, the best means for the parties involved to effectively enforce their respective claims, and, at the same time, raise patriotism among citizens. However, there seems to be a shift toward paramilitary presence, a practice currently being implemented by China, because military aggression projects a negative image at a time when all of the claimant-states are fighting to have mileage in terms of local and international acceptability of their claims, and a positive reputation.

While increased military and paramilitary presence remains to be the most effective way of projecting one's territorial claim, peaceful means of resolving the disputes such as negotiations, joint development of contested areas and are still the best option that claimant-states can pursue. However, due to political and cultural differences, and the diverse and complex nature of the territorial claims, even this route may prove to be difficult to take for the six parties in the conflict. China, the most aggressive among the six claimant-states, may invoke bilateral negotiations as a means for it and other stakeholders to arrive at an agreement but continuously rejects options such as multilateral negotiations and arbitration.

 

Unfortunately, there seems to be no clear means on how to fully resolve the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Because of this, millions of people who look at the sea as a source of both nourishment and livelihood will continue to see their lives disrupted and affected as claimant-states fight for control over contested areas. The threat to the environment also increases as the parties build structures over reefs, which serve as natural habitat for fishes and other marine animals.

BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS
About the Author
Benedict is an agricultural economist, academician and writer. He has gained experience and expertise in various fields of economics, business, political science and public relations after through professional ventures in the academe, and in the public and private sectors. He has authored or co-authored key publications on topics ranging from agriculture and food security to global affairs and politics.
Other Articles