Geopolitics in the South China Sea

Who owns the right to develop on and in the South China Sea?

This is the contested question circulating around the geopolitical struggle in the sea, a thoroughfare linking countries in Southeast Asia.

The Hague Ruling

Late last year the Philippines brought to The Hague an arbitration case against China. The case argued that China increased presence in the zone could disrupt stability in the region.

In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines. It judged China’s development in the area infringed upon other countries’ exclusive economic zones.\

While the Philippines welcomed the ruling, China rejected the PCA’s judgment.

China vows to continue development of manmade islands in the region as well as its sovereign right to perform military training operations throughout the territory.

This is because China claims to have “indisputable historic rights” to the sea. These rights, from their perspective, enable the country to claim territory that it sees as its own backyard.

The Role of the United States

The United States has stoked tension in the region by performing flyovers and sending naval vessels into the region. Part of this has to do with the Trans Pacific Partnership recently signed that includes many countries within the region.

The U.S.’s involvement speaks to its longstanding belief of free trade throughout the area, but undermines what China believes to be its manifest destiny.

It should come as no surprise, however, that the U.S. has taken such action in the South China Sea. Rather, it speaks to the historical claim to dominion over regions it perceives as vital to its interests. From the Monroe Doctrine to Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” ideology, the United States has a complicated past of exerting its own rights over disputed territory.

Perhaps because of this history, and the U.S.’s vested interest in the region, China claims that it is the United States that is militarizing the region.

Although it has refrained from serious confrontation with China over the disputed territory, the U.S. has a strong partnership with the Philippines. The two countries both have interest in limiting the role China plays throughout Southeast Asia.

Despite PCA’s ruling, and despite U.S. presence in the region, China continues to militarize the South China Sea in an effort to stake its claim to the region regardless of what the international community believes is the best course of action.

One of the chief reasons the South China Sea is a geopolitical quagmire is due to the rich resources it contains.

South China Sea Resources

From oil to fish to general trade access, the South China Sea is an integral part of the growing economic viability of Southeast Asia more generally.

It also speaks to China as a rising global power.

Estimates suggest that the sea holds up to 11 billion barrels of oil, in addition to vast reserves of natural gas. These energy reserves could serve a vital part in the development of Southeast Asia, and whoever controls the energy resources will have more power within the region.

This is a primary reason why the Philippines brought its case against China to The Hague in the first place. China’s historical claim to the sea encompasses an area that nearly touches the coastal regions of neighboring countries. This wide swath of claimed domain leaves the energy industries of countries, such as the Philippines, in a precarious position.

The global fish supply is also a contested part of the territory.

With its rich and vibrant fishing history, and a plethora of consumable fish, the South China Sea dispute is also a story of fishery regulation and enforcement.

Fishing rights are integral to the legitimacy and sovereignty of countries in the region.

Vietnamese fishermen have repeatedly run into Chinese ships. These encounters often result in the loss of whatever stocks the fishermen have on board, as well as equipment the workers need to navigate the waters and locate schools of fish.

China is not the sole agitator, however.

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USS Mustin patrols in the South China Sea (Photo by U.S. Pacific Fleet. Flickr Creative Commons.)

Indonesia has scuttled numerous fishing boats in an effort to exert their own rights to the seascape off its coasts.

Such disputes call to question the legality of rights to the sea, and the question of whose legal claims can be justified by the international community.

While the countries continue to assert their rights to the sea, the numerous run-ins have damaged coral reefs in the area. The environmental damage could be enough to bring the nations together to discuss regulating fishing in the area.

There is some evidence that such negotiations could soon be underway.

Taiwan has sided with China on the PCA’s ruling.

Indonesia remains open to discussions over developing a plan so that all countries in the region can avoid future conflict.

Yet, others remain steadfast in their own rights to sovereignty.

In an effort to deter China from expanding into its claimed territory, Vietnam began to militarize its part of the sea.

The Philippines recently rejected bilateral talks with China over China’s refusal to accept any of the stipulations in the July ruling.

Rights to the Water

Despite the refusal to discuss the sea with China, the Philippines remains open to keeping diplomatic ties with both China and the U.S., rather than strengthening ties with either country.

While there is hope that a diplomatic solution may eventually be found, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warns of further conflict unless its rights and claims to the sea are acknowledged by China.

Perhaps it is just the posturing of a smaller nation in the face of China.

Perhaps it is a justifiable threat to actualize militaries in the region.

Perhaps it is a simple reminder that other nations, regardless of their global economic standing, matter.

One thing remains clear: the final storm on the South China Sea dispute has yet to be weathered.


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