The International Law of the Sea set by the United Nations (UNCLOS) has been undermined by China in the pursuit of its ill-founded hegemonic claims over the South China Sea. The Dragon has, in order to give shape to and pursue its territorial and maritime claims has engaged in actions like increasing its military and naval presence, encroaching on coastal states’ exclusive economic zones, engaging in denying the US and other countries navigational and other freedoms of the seas, which undercuts the peace and stability of the South China Sea. China has established its clout in East Asia, weakening the international rules-based order and aggressively pursuing its territorial and maritime hegemonic ambitions. This hampers this stability in the region and degrades China’s reputation which in spite of the situation being clearly unstable maintains that the South China Sea (SCS) is “calm and harmonious”. This is the result of inconsistent international pressure on Beijing, smaller countries’ acceptance of China’s belligerent demeanour in the South China Sea and accepting the ‘new normal’, increasing Chinese incursions and militarisation in the region and China’s willingness to accept reputational harm in order to achieve its hegemonic ambitions.
The South China Sea dispute is based on both maritime as well as territorial claims. The Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal, and the Pratas Islands are the four contested geographic features in the South China Sea, with the Paracel Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and the Spratly Islands, claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei being the most hotly contested. This maritime dispute has at its roots in Beijing’s contentious ‘nine-dash line’, that was Beijing’s cartographic assertion submitted to the UN in 2009. The controversial line lays claims on the maritime and territorial features that are in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, its bully-like actions have led to discord in the region. There have been overlapping claims in the South China Sea with China seeking to become the hegemon in the disputed regional topography.
The South China Sea Arbitration
There are six nations that contest all or parts of the oil and gas rich South China Sea, which has led to a series of confrontations between the Dragon and others over the competing claims.
The Philippines in January 2013 put forth a case against China’s belligerent activities and expansive claims in the SCS. An arbitral tribunal was constituted for the hearing of the case under the UNCLOS and final decision in 2016 was in Philippines’ favour; the resource rights in the South China Sea had to be clarified. China’s contentious nine-dash line became the subject of disapproval and the tribunal ruled against it, clearly stating that China was claiming historic rights to the resources within the jurisdiction of its aforementioned nine-dash but in actuality, these claims were nullified with China becoming a signatory of the UNCLOS in 1996 due to its discordancy with the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other coastal states.
The tribunal also ruled that the 200-nautical-mile EEZ entitlements of the Philippines and, by conclusion, the other coastal states in the region, are unfettered by the nine-dash line or any claimed EEZ in the Spratly Islands.
China denounced the decision as “null and void” having “no binding force,” it largely kept to its letter if not its spirit in the first year after the award. The United States and its allies, members of ASEAN and India directly or indirectly pressured Beijing to accept the ruling and comply with the UNCLOS. Another reason could have been China’s disinterest in direct confrontation in the region.
China’s Outright Claims Over the South China Sea
Beijing’s venture into the disputed South China Sea has been a part and parcel of its long-term strategy to establish its hegemony over the near and far regions and expand and deepen its sphere of influence, both overland and in the seas. Recently, the dragon’s firing of medium-range missiles into the SCS and its ever-increasing military exercises is an avowal in order to show its sovereignty over the disputed waters.
Even though its untoward claims have no legal basis, as pointed out by Hague Tribunal, which is by and large ignored and disobeyed by China, does not stop it from emerging as a formidable trouble-fomenting power in the South China Sea. What started in the guise of a cooperative mechanism for engaging with the countries in the periphery of the disputed SCS has turned into brazen bullying by Beijing.
Historically, post one-year anniversary of the UNCLOS tribunal’s ruling, as international attention faded, China started strengthening its claims and encroaching upon the EEZs of the coastal states; deepening the purview of its maritime claims and increasing its military and naval presence apart from objecting to the presence of US navigation and laws of free movement. It was greatly engaged in consolidating its grand and objectionable territorial claims engaging in reclamation of physical geographical features on which lay its belligerent claims. Its militarisation of the region and installations at Mischief Reef through naval and aerial facilities and setting up of artificial islands has been a well-known factor.
Beijing has been an aggressive bully in the region trying to establish rules and laws that favour its grandiose plans. It has always maintained that it has full control over the region and has stakes and claims, as in the case of its assertion on a recent White Paper – “China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.”
Beijing through its deplorable actions has been able to outrightly build a forceful maritime presence in the South China Sea, strengthening its surveillance and intelligence capabilities; its aerial capabilities have also helped it to gain a strong foothold over the region, thus, bringing it closer to the realisation of its broad strategic goals of hegemony of the region, sans any respect for the laws of the sea or the international rules-based order. The other adversaries have also been subdued by China’s overwhelming presence in the region and even, the US credibility, action and capability has been undermined with Chinese sovereign control over the contested territory being somewhat fait accompli. Chinese downright assertions over the South China Sea have antagonised the neighbouring states with the ASEAN being virtually helpless in the face of adversity that Beijing has thrown on to them. Moreover, in the present scenario in a world ravaged by COVID-19, it is difficult to control the bully and prevent it from infringing on the rights of other rightful contenders of the South China Sea resources.
Council on Foreign Relations. (n.d.). Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea. Council on Foreign Relations.
Kumar, A., & Chari, S. (2020, September 6). China creating a flashpoint in South China Sea. Sunday Guardian Live.
Kuok, L. (2019). How China’s actions in the South China Sea undermine the Rule of Law. Global China.
Tsirbas, M. (2016, June 2). What Does the Nine-Dash Line Actually Mean? The Diplomat.