South China Sea – Mare Nostrum?

The South China Sea is a marginal sea, joining the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes.

There are two main island groups in the South China Sea – the Paracel Islands are in the northern part, about 200 miles from the coast of Vietnam and the Spratly islands which is spread through the southern part of the South China Sea and include about 100 small islets, sand bars, reefs, and rocks. Apart from that we have smaller islands – Pratas and Macclesfield Bank.

At the heart of the South China Sea dispute lays a contradiction called EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone. So, before we discuss the South China Sea dispute, let’s understand EEZ.

Brief History of EEZ & UNCLOS:

In the older days, around 17th Century, we had a concept of ‘freedom of the seas‘ in which national rights were limited to a specified belt of water extending from a nation’s coastlines, usually three nautical miles, according to the ‘cannon shot‘ rule developed by the Dutch people. All waters beyond national boundaries were considered international waters, which according to Grotius were “free to all nations, but belonging to none of them” – In his book “mare liberum

In the early 20th century, some nations expressed their desire to extend national claims: to include mineral resources, to protect fish stocks, and to provide the means to enforce pollution controls. Slowly countries started drawing their own “national boundaries”.  In 1956 UN held its first conference on the Law of the Sea in which territorial rights on Ocean was discussed but it was not until 1982 that we saw the culmination of thousands of years of international relations and conflict with nearly universal adherence to an enduring order for ocean space – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

UNCLOS establishes international property law erga omnes that is by legal and political necessity and requires a bargained consensus to be effective. This bargain essentially provides coastal states with extended but limited jurisdictions (EEZ), while ensuring that the seabed and its mineral resources beyond were the “common heritage of mankind” that would peaceably and sustainably benefit all.

The concept of EEZ was adopted in the 1982 United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.

An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is a 200-nautical-mile sea area measured from the low-water baseline (the level reached by the sea at low tide) of a state’s coast or of an inhabitable island under its sovereignty. An EEZ, as well as its relation, the continental shelf – the seabed and its subsoil up to 350 nautical miles from the coast – is a closely guarded asset.  Under UNCLOS, a state has sovereign jurisdiction over the area’s living and non-living marine resources.

When EEZ claims overlap, UNCLOS leaves it to the member states to sort out their differences through mutual discussion and consensus. It is this overlap of EEZ which is the cause of all disputes in the narrow stretch of South China Sea.


The South China Dispute:

Dispute 1: Vietnam Vs People’s Republic of China (including Taiwan) over Paracel Island

China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam War. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim.

In order to demonstrate its sovereignty China’s has been staging big military exercises in the South China Sea and also declared plans to develop group tourism on the archipelago.


Dispute 2: Malaysia Vs Philippines Vs Brunei Vs People’s Republic of China (including Taiwan) Vs Vietnam Vs Indonesia over Spratly Island

All of these countries stake their claim over Spratly Island, except for Indonesia and Brunei, which only says that it falls under its EEZ as defined by UNCLOS.

While China shows a 1947 China map detailing its claims, which demarcates practically the whole of South China Sea with “Nine Dashed Line”, Vietnam says it always ruled Spratly since 17th century. Philippines invoke its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping. Malaysia claims not all but a small number of islands in Spratly.


Dispute 3: China Vs ASEAN

Note: China is not a member of ASEAN

In an attempt to minimise the risk of conflict in South China Sea, the two reached a common “Declaration on Conduct” (DoC) in 2002, but efforts to turn it into a formal and binding code has never materialised.  China argues that ASEAN has no role in territorial issues, and insists on negotiating with the other claimants bilaterally. ASEAN sees this as an effort to pick off its members one by one and argues that its own charter forces members to consult.

Foreign Policy Analogy: The smaller South East nations are pursuing the negotiating strategy of the weak — internationalize the conflict.  Like the one followed by Yasser Arafat’s for an “international conference” over the Arab-Israeli conflict, whereas Israel like the Chinese, always preferred bilateral talks.  Both China and Israel resist international conferences where smaller countries can gang up on them.


Dispute 4: United States of America Vs Republic of China

The two have locked horns over the issue of freedom of navigation & over flight and the right to conduct military exercises within other countries’ EEZ. America insists they are permissible while China objects to them.

China has recently started talking of its claims in the South China Sea as a “core national interest” at par with Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang Province.


What is so special about South China Sea?

1. Petroleum & Natural Gas Resources: 

US Energy Information Administration (widely regarded) in its report in 2011 stated that fossil fuels are expected to continue supplying much of the energy used worldwide.

World use of petroleum and other liquids will grow from 85.7 million barrels per day in 2008 to 97.6 million barrels per day in 2020 and 112.2 million barrels per day in 2035. It is also stated that most of the growth in liquids use is in the transportation sector, where, in the absence of significant technological advances, liquids continue to provide much of the energy consumed. Liquid fuels remain an important energy source for transportation and industrial sector processes. Transportation is an extremely important factor in a country’s growth and development. Hence energy security of liquids is extremely essential to maintain a sustainable growth.

World natural gas consumption will grow from 111 trillion cubic feet in 2008 to 169 trillion cubic feet in 2035. Natural gas continues to be the fuel of choice for its relatively low carbon intensity compared with oil and coal make and helps in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to US Energy Information Administration the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – same as the proven reserves of Qatar.


2. Major Sea Route & Maritime Region:

The South China Sea joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes. More than 50% of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through this sea and 1/3rd of all maritime traffic. The oil transported through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is more than 6 times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 17 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80% of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea.

Control of the South China Sea would facilitate China’s dominance of Asia, since US ships and aircraft as well as those of Japan, South Korea and other countries would have to have Chinese permission to transit the South China Sea, a major supply and transit route.

People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) – Despite having one of the longest coastlines in the world, China has traditionally been a land power and has not had a navy of consequence. But now, in an era where strategic security depends upon supply lines and natural resources, the People’s Republic of China has been devoting much time and thought into developing a navy capable of defending its lifeline of energy and mineral supplies.

The PLAN in recent years has been increasing its naval capacity, building more destroyers, cruisers, and submarines and more importantly on a new tactic known as Area Anti-Access Denial (AAAD). This is basically the strategy of denying operational ability to an enemy in a specific location.  China has been bolstering this capability using advanced navy and submarine warfare like Anti-Surface to ship Missiles (ASM), Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) etc.

The United States (the US 7th Fleet) and Japan have the two largest navies in the world. Hence it would be reasonable for the PLAN to believe that in a time of crisis the U.S. would block access to crucial resources China needs and imports through the Straits of Malacca (in South China Sea).

The fastest way to win a war is to destroy an enemy’s ability to wage it. To combat the larger operational capability of the US Navy, the PLAN has constructed a series of AAAD strategies focused on island chains as defensive perimeters.

The first island chain runs through the South China Sea and is called the “First Island Chain of Defense” and hence the even greater interest of China to stake its claim in this sea.

The Second Island Chain of Defense is less distinctive, running southward from northern Japan through Guam, Micronesia, and terminating near New Guinea.

Chinese strategists view these “chains” as defensive perimeters to occupy or, at the very minimum, deny an enemy access to the area they encompass.

There is apprehensions in Indian defence circles that the ‘String of Pearls’ around Indian Ocean might be the China’s “Third Island Chain of Defense”.

3. Fishing & Marine Biodiversity:

There are also profuse fishing opportunities within the area. This region accounts for 10% of world’s fishing catches. The sea also holds one third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity, thereby making it a very important area for the ecosystem.

India and the South China Sea:

The disputes over South China Sea seemed to have heated adjacent waters of the Indian Ocean as well.

Recently China had strongly objected to India’s ONGC Videsh’s (OVL) venture for off-shore oil exploration in water’s belonging to Vietnam (not recognized by China). India has chosen to ignore the warnings and responded by stating that its cooperation with Vietnam is in accordance with international laws.

Point to be noted here is that, while China opposes India’s entry into the South China Sea, it insists on building strategic projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and on deploying troops there. Apart from this, China’s recent maritime activities – such as its extended counter piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean and its involvement in a number of port development projects in Indian Ocean littorals (dubbed the “string of pearls”), have raised the suspicion in Indian defence circles.

Indian and ASEAN:

  • India recently backed US’s multilateral approach rather than China’s bilateral approach in solving the South China Sea crisis. India also supported freedom of navigation in international waters.
  • Maritime cooperation between India and ASEAN limited
  • Off late India seen as a credible counterweight to China. Hence Southeast Asian countries, wary of continued Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, have encouraged joint maritime exercises with India. The Indian Navy’s Milan exercise was one such example.
  • India and ASEAN countries must collaborate – India has a strong Navy with technological credibility that can be leveraged by ASEAN. Collaboration on missile technology, radar systems, capacity-building and patrolling piracy-infested areas are areas where ASEAN countries can work in partnership with India.
  • Most ASEAN countries are engaged in defence modernization programme – India with its long experience in using Russian products and developed technological capabilities for low cost servicing can be ASEAN’s countries ally.
  • Assisting ASEAN will also improve India’s relations with the Southeast Asian countries bilaterally and multilaterally
  • Balancing China power in the Indian Ocean Region.

India’s Maritime and Energy Security Needs: India has a strong interest in keeping sea lanes open in the South China Sea. The Sea is not only a strategic maritime link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, but also a vital gateway for shipping in East Asia. Almost, 55% of India’s trade with the Asia Pacific transits through the South China Sea.

Sakhalin is India’s largest equity oil investment (Greater details on Equity Oil Investments by India and Energy Security in my later post) abroad and the shipping oil passes through this sea route. First shipment was received at Mangalore in Dec 2006. Therefore, it is vital for India to have access to the region. If China continues to assert dominance over these waters, it will be difficult for India to continue with its activities through this channel.

India’s Way Forward:

  • Given its naval strength, only US have the capabilities to contain China in the South China Sea, should there be a confrontation. But currently the US is beset with economic problems and rising public debt. Its more than necessary presence in Middle East and the urgent to maintain trade ties with China, the US has maintained an ambivalent stance on South China Dispute in recent past.
  • India needs atleast 5-10 yrs to bring its infrastructure on par with that of China.
  • The Gilgit-Baltistan area is legitimately of India. India needs to focus here, identifying options to prevent Chinese foray, rather than getting involved in South China Sea dispute which is not India’s.

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