South China Sea Disputes

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International Studies 1

Position Paper
South China Sea Dispute

Buela, Mark Angelo Tan Professor: Catherine Telan I.S. 1213 July 15, 2013

DISPUTES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
Rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries - but a recent upsurge in tension has sparked concern that the area is becoming a flashpoint with global consequences. It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas and the Paracels and the Spratlys - two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of uninhabited rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal. The territorial disputes in the South China Sea mainly involve seven sovereign states: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. The main contentious areas are the islands of Spratlys and Paracels, and also continental reefs and sandbanks such as the Scarborough Shoal. Apart from the issue of sovereignty, another important cause of the dispute is that these islands and their exclusive economic zones, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1, have significant energy resources in the form of vast oil and natural gas reserves. The region also serves as a strategic zone for maritime trade and surveillance. The most aggressive states in claiming sovereignty over these disputed areas have been China, Vietnam and the Philippines. China has claimed the largest portion of the area, including all the parts of the sea within the so called ‘nine-dashed line’2. It bases this on “historical rights” to the Spratlys and the Paracels. Taiwan makes similar claims. Vietnam refuses to acknowledge this, saying that both islands fall completely within its territory, whereas the Philippines invoke its geographical proximity to the Spratlys as the main basis of its claim. The growing assertiveness of these countries in their claims and the nationalist sentiment attached to the issue pose a significant threat to the stability of the region. There have been major military conflicts over the territories in the South China Sea in the last 50 years3. The recent past has seen many incidents between the maritime forces of these nations. There have been tense standoffs, the most recent being the ones between China and the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 and at the Reed Bank in February 20114. The past year has seen all the claimants upping their rhetoric and becoming more aggressive in their claims. The Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of building up its military presence in the disputed areas, and increasing its naval exercises in the disputed waters. In November 2012, the Secretary-General of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, said that China’s plan to board ships in disputed areas was a “serious turn of events” and warned that this could escalate tensions in the region5. Nationalism in the involved states has been at the core of the matter. In China, history textbooks include maps showing the South China Sea as its territory. Also, the “victories” in 1974 and 1988 military conflicts over the Vietnamese have led to a growing nationalist sentiment. On its part, Beijing has, not infrequently, tended to use nationalism to defend its foreign policies. As for the others, recent incidents in the South China Sea have sparked fierce anti-China protests on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Manila6. Another factor that has caused diplomatic rows between China and other nations has been the vagueness of China’s claim. Beijing has not yet made a legal claim in regard to the nine-dashed line...
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