While in recent weeks Chinese ships, planes and even satellites have been working alongside their South East Asian neighbours to find missing flight MH370, relations between the countries are not doing well. Earlier this year the Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration here in The Hague. They are protesting China’s claim to a large part of the South China Sea, and have decided to take the disagreement to an international level. China on the other hand has refused to take part, saying the court cannot get involved in the matter and showing its anger with the Philippines earlier this week. So what has got these nations in such a fuss? Who has the law on their side? And what does this say about China’s role in Asia?
While at first glance the above map looks confusing, it’s simple enough when you know what you’re looking at. The blue lines show the area of the South China Sea that each country is allowed to use as an Exclusive Economic Zone according to international law (more on that later). This means that they are allowed to fish and extract oil or gas from these areas. For example, Vietnam has a large piece of the western part of the sea, China much of the north, and Brunei a long rectangle in the south. So far, so good. However, the red line which circles the entire South China Sea right down to the coast of Malaysia is what China claims as its territorial waters. This means that they don’t just claim fishing and oil rights, but that they could technically say that foreign ships are no longer allowed to enter. Once you know this, one look at the map shows that this situation can’t work out well.
To make matters worse, those green dots are islands; some no bigger than a few rocks. But if a country can say that these rocks are part of their territory, suddenly they can claim an extra section of the sea around it. This has led to an absurd situation where six different countries have soldiers on various islands and are frantically trying to build structures and infrastructure to make these tiny islands actually liveable. The Filipino navy even ran a ship aground on one atoll 15 years ago to provide somewhere for its soldiers to actually be able to live (picture).
So why, in the 21st century, are nations sailing frantically around the South China Sea and making soldiers live on rocks? The first reason is (unsurprisingly) natural resources. Scientists believe that waters around the disputed islands contain large amounts of oil and natural gas. Controlling an island means controlling the natural resources around it, at least if another navy doesn’t get in the way. Another reason is that the South China Sea is one of the busiest pieces of water on earth. With one third of the world’s shipping going through, controlling these waters means more power.
Finally, one of the biggest reasons for this is simply nationalism. Aggressively asserting the right to the islands is extremely popular among the public of these countries, especially in Vietnam and China, the nations with the best claim to the biggest island groups (Spratly and Paracel Islands). Both countries constantly bicker about their historical claims to the islands and who they should belong to now. I remember seeing a number of historical maps of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the railway station in Hue, Vietnam in 2013. They were hanging in full view, with text also written in English just to make it clear. This isn’t just some historical argument, this is an issue with both countries can use to raise a nationalist mood among their citizens.
So, who has the best claim? Unfortunately there is no real answer. While I might conclude from some brief research that Vietnam has a pretty good claim to the Spratly Islands, proclaiming that as fact could bring forth an army of Chinese lawyers and academics with the maps and documents to prove me wrong. And this is just one chain of islands – there are over 250 there. However, it appears that China’s claim to the entire South China Sea is not very convincing. Basing a claim to an entire sea based on ‘historical record’ is no longer accepted in international law, and with a brief look at the map anyone can see that their claim seems extreme.
Unfortunately for Chinese-Southeast Asian relations, the way China has gone about pressing its claim to the South China Sea has come across as very aggressive and threatening. Instead of creating allies in the region, China is alienating its Southern neighbours and driving them towards other allies – such as the US. Even Vietnam has been edging closer to the country that devastated it in the Vietnam War just 40 years ago. It seems logical that it would serve China’s aims much better to attempt to solve its disputes in a peaceful way. This then allows them to shut the US out from regional power. However, if the court case in The Hague goes against China and they ignore it, their difficulties with South East Asia and the wider world will only get worse.
If you like what you’re reading, and want to get regular updates on the biggest news stories of the week, click the follow button to the right to get all updates right in your inbox. Or follow the blog through Twitter: @YW_Explained.