From the mid-1950s, the Philippines and Vietnam started to intrude on the South China Sea islands, particularly, in the 1970s-1980s, with the discovery of oil and gas in the South China Sea.
Professor Li Guoqiang, an expert at China’s Social Science Academy, disclosed that the South China Sea is a territorial dispute involving several states namely. According to him, there are rich mineral resources and this attracted the attention of these countries.
In the 1990s, these countries became more aggressive, with the Philippines navy blowing up Chinese survey markers and monuments on some reefs and islands, as well as raiding Chinese fishing vessels.
The Philippines even ran two of its warships around at strategic locations in order to maintain a presence in the area.
The South China Sea is a huge sea of 1.4 million square miles, bordered by nations that contain approximately 2 billion people. About a third of the world’s shipping goes through its waters, which also provide vast amounts of food and whose seabed is rich in oil and gas.
Scattered through the sea are small land features-often tiny, often underwater during high tide. These fall into two main groupings, the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the sea, and the Spratly Islands in the southern part.
China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia all claim sovereignty over some of these land features and waters, and the claims conflict.
China, through its “nine-dash line” map and many statements, has claimed at the very least sovereignty over all the islands and rocks in the South China Sea and rights over the adjacent waters.
The other five stakeholders have conflicting claims over land features that in turn produce numerous additional overlapping and conflicting claims over adjacent waters and how they are used. Neither the vastness of the sea nor the smallness of the disputed land specks has prevented an escalation in intensity in recent years.
First to exercise sovereign jurisdiction
China was the first to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over the South China Sea during the Yuan Dynasty, and marked these islands on its maps under the Qing Dynasty. It was only in the 20th century that Western colonial powers coveted the Nansha islands. “Our claims are based on Historical rights,” Professor Li stated, noting that there are files that proves that the jurisdiction belongs to China.
He disclosed that at very longtime, Chinese vessels navigate in this Island to catch fish and at the time Chinese fishermen lived in this island.
Vietnam has flexed its muscles by initiating commercial tours to the Nansha islands, initiating bidding rounds for oil blocks, and announced plans to build gas pipelines.
In 2007 it went so far as to hold elections for National Assembly representatives for the Nansha islands.
Despite the tug of war, the situation was under control prior to 2009, with China seeking dialogue with its neighbours, and advocating joint development of the South China Sea. The US Asia-Pacific re-balancing strategy that President Barack Obama introduced in 2009, however, has escalated tension. Vietnam and the Philippines have felt empowered to act on their claims, believing they have US political and military cover.
In a very real sense the US has been the invisible hand behind the rising tension, conducting joint naval exercises with claimants, orchestrating confrontational incidents with Chinese naval vessels, and even giving partial recognition to the Philippines’ unilateral renaming of the South China Sea to the West Philippines Sea. The US has encouraged claimants to step up their efforts to take over the islands, engaging in joint exercises with the Philippines on “retaking islands” and “oil rig defence”.
According to Paul Gewirtz, the vast South China Sea has become one of the world’s most dangerous hotspots. Through words and deeds, six claimants including China contend for control over numerous small land features and resource-rich waters, with the United States also heavily involved because of alliances and our own security and economic interests.
According to him, the great geo-political question of our age, whether the United States as the established dominant superpower can co-exist with a re-emerging powerful China, sits on the sea’s horizon like a huge and taunting Cheshire Cat.
“Most of the contending countries have been aggressive in recent years, but China has been especially bold in staking out very broad claims to sovereignty and related rights to land features and waters in the South China Sea. It has also been bold in undertaking “land reclamations” that build on land features, turning claims into physical structures and threatening further militarization.”
Its rapidly developing naval presence and capability have raised added concerns among China’s weaker neighbours as well as the United States, whose military presence has greatly contributed to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific for decades.
According to some experts, the Philippines’ unilateral move to bring a maritime dispute with China to an international tribunal would not help resolve the problem and the right way forward is to seek settlement through bilateral talks.
They expressed support for China’s position of non-acceptance of and non-participation in the arbitration of the China-Philippines dispute over islands in the South China Sea, saying that Manila’s arbitration act runs against the spirit of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and reneges on its previous promises.
Yasser Gadallah, Director of the Chinese-Egyptian Research Center at Helwan University, said the Philippines’ arbitration requires China’s approval.
“Arbitration requires the consent of the two concerned parties, if the decisions by an international arbitration committee are binding for both of them.”
Saeed Chaudhry, chair of the Islamabad Council for International Affairs, also believes the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental organization located in The Hague, has no jurisdiction to hear or judge the case.
The court should have rejected the Philippines’ arbitration request because the Philippines itself is “illegally occupying islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands.”
“By considering all the facts in the issue, China has complete right and comprehensive reasons to reject the arbitration proceedings and not to accept and recognize any verdict by the arbitration,” he added.
by Mariatou Ngum
in Beijing, China