China now claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the entire South China Sea, or almost 90% of it as represented by the “9 Dash Line”. As per international maritime laws, a country can claim a maximum of 12 nautical miles of Sea from its shores as its own territorial waters.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), estimates that 70% of global trade (by value) is done through the seas. And 1/3rd of this global maritime trade happens through the lanes of South China Sea. It is the Strait of Malacca, the narrow gateway connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean, that strategists rightly believe to be a choke point.
A relevant source can be referred to as below:
Not only has China built artificial islands in South China Sea but also militarized them. Setting up military infrastructure unilaterally on international territory or on commonly used sea lanes violate international law. It is worth noting that it was the Philippines that took China to court in 2014. A case was lodged at the The Hague, International Tribunal. Philippines questioned the legality of the so called 9 Dash Line that China proclaims to be its territory. In 2016 the court dismissed China’s far fetched claims to almost 90 % of the entire sea that leaves neighbors like Philippines with only as much as a their boundary area of sea territory. The tribunal rejected the 9 Dash Line, China’s artificial island building and expansion, all of which was pronounced to be in violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This is a particularly risky territory as its a major gateway not only for a lot of maritime commercial traffic, but also as a transit for oil cargo to china. It is also worth remembering that a choke hold blockade was imposed upon Japan during the last days of World War 2. But this time the US isn’t the only nuclear superpower.
While China does have the right to secure the SC Sea passage for commercial reasons, their tone hardly suggests its just a matter of securing. What whey claim is “sovereignty” over the sea as if it is their own sovereign territory. It could any day tend towards controlling the sea lane. In fact the Chinese not only disregarded the Tribunal’s ruling but also mocked it as ” a piece of paper that is destined to come to naughts “. Referring to a startling conversation between President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping reported by Japanese based news source Nikkei Asian Review, the subject came up of whether Philippines could drill for oil in areas of SC Sea disputed by both countries. President Duterte reveals he was given a blunt warning by the Chinese ruler ” We are friends. We don’t want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain the presence of warm relationship. But if you force the issue we will go to war”. Does it sound like someone saying – Be peaceful and silent or we will declare war on you ! What this practically means is that only China would have to by default right to do build islands and infrastructure on common territory (international water way ) and only others need to stay within their boundaries.
To further bring forth the true cause of my concern, let me take you to a time in Greece around 411 B.C. when the famous Greek historian Thucydides coined the concept known today as the Thucydides Trap. It refers to situation where an established power is faced with the challenge of another rising power. The established power fearful of losing its position in future, attempts to bring down the emerging power and that escalates towards war. Thucydides wrote in his legendary work, History of the Peloponnesian War, “What made war inevitable was the growth of the Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”. In our times, renowned American political scientist Graham Allison, coined the term Thucydides Trap in his book – Destined For War. It speaks about the pull of the power trap that can cause ‘world power’ nations to destroy each other in their quest for absolute dominance.
And why I mention that the US is not the only nuclear power, is that World War 1 & 2 were fought by conventional means but we do not have that privilege if a third world war is to occur.
So what’s the fuss about that nations are so concerned about the developments at South China Sea. A report from a US Think Tank says that China has completed the building of military infrastructure in at least three artificial islands in SC Sea. (Refer to Bibliography : National Post). This will give China the ability to deploy their Air Force and other military assets on these islands, thus allowing it to establish surveillance on the region and launch an attack, in case of war. The report says “Beijing can now deploy military assets including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time.” Following this US as well as other claimants to the Spratly island region, namely the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan & Brunei, have all condemned China’s militarization of the SC Sea and accused it of altering geography to suite its strategic intentions. The US has been sending its Navy ships for Freedom of Navigation patrols.
China wishes to safeguard its vital passage in South China Sea but also wishes to someday dominate Asia & then the globe. Very similar to the unipolar “Global Power” goals of the US. History bears testimony to the fact that nations lose their way in their quest for world power status. Entire oceans do not belong to any particular country. They belong to the planet, a creation of nature and hence are considered free for navigation, protected by international laws. China holds that other countries have right to navigate as they are doing until now, but that South China Sea will be treated as their sovereignty territory, within the 9 Dash line proclaimed by them.
There’s a lot of ambiguity and contradiction in such a claim as it gives one country territorial authority of a busy international maritime gateway. It tends to make them custodian of the sea lane. Freedom of navigation is ensured only when maritime laws are followed & respected by all parties.
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Disclaimer: The article expresses the personal views and observations of the Author.