By Teshu Singh
In the recent weeks, there have been multiple claims and counter-claims on the South China Sea (SCS) between China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Why are there conflicting claims? And what are the bases of these claims?
The key difference between the SCS as a geographical area in the modern nation-state system and the other disputed areas whose sovereignty is also contested, is that there is no permanent population inhabiting any of these islets. The only group of human population that crisscrosses the SCS waters on a daily basis is the fishermen from coastal communities. Since there is a dispute in the region much of the area remains unregulated.
China, the Philippines and Vietnam: Who claims what?
According to the Chinese, the Spratly islands have been an integral part of China for nearly 2000 years. The then superpowers took these islands from the Chinese through the unequal treaties. They are using the naval expeditions to the Spratly islands by the Han Dynasty in 110 AD and the Ming Dynasty from 1403-1433 AD to further strengthens their arguments. In 1947 it issued a map detailing its claim which shows the two island group falling entirely under its own territory. Objecting to the Chinese stance, Vietnam claims the island on historical grounds and on the continental shelf principle in accordance with the provision of the UNCLOS. Vietnam claims the entire Spratly island chains as an offshore district of Khanh Hoa Province. It continues to claim the Paracel Islands, despite their seizure by China in 1976.
The other major claimant, the Philippines, bases its claims of sovereignty over the Spratly on the premise of Res Nullius and Geography. It claims eight islets of the Spratly Island chain, but not the land mass itself. The Philippines claim on the Spratly Island was first expressed in the United Nations General Assembly in 1946; but Philippines involvement in the Spratly did not begin in earnest until 1956 when on 15 May a Philippines citizen Tomas Cloma proclaimed the founding of a new state Kalayaan (freedom island) encompassing 53 features spreading throughout the eastern side of the sea, including Spratly island proper, Itu aba Pagasa and Nam Yit Islands, North Danger reef, Mariveless Reef and Investigator shoal.The other claimants in the region are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan.
China is already in possession of the Paracel Islands which it considers as its own and it is ready to talk on the Spratly Island with Vietnam and other countries on one to one negotiation, no third party or group talks. On the contrary, the Philippine Deputy Presidential Spokesperson said that the country maintains its policy towards a “rules-based settlement approach” and a “multilateral approach” to settling the Spratlys’ dispute. “We should exhaust all diplomatic means and be rules-based on the UNCLOS and the existing international law – in settling the dispute in the West Philippine Sea.” But unlike the Philippine’s and Vietnamese who attempt to solve the disputes in the SCS through multilateral mechanisms, China wants to address the issue with individual parties bilaterally. In official terms China wants to ‘shelve the dispute, and exploit the resources jointly’.
In recent times, Chinese frictions with both the Philippines and Vietnam have raised the temperature in the SCS region. Its shows that the Code of Conduct 2002 has failed and the parties have failed to stick to the spirit of agreement. This in turn has posed a serious threat to the regional stability in the Southeast Asia.
So what will happen? Will China yield to these claims?
China’s rise has also created concern about how Beijing will use its growing economic and military power in the region. Militarily, China is the dominant regional power and one of the world’s emerging great powers. China is well aware of its neighbor’s dismay about its emergence and has, since 2001, pursued a “Good neighbor” policy towards the region. It has signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with ASEAN. This FTA will make the ASEAN members less dependent on the US dollar. However, the SCS remains a sticky issue in China and ASEAN relations. How China engages Southeast Asia will tell much about the nature of China’s rise.
To counter China’s rise the US is trying to make a comeback in the Southeast Asian region. The US-Vietnam ties are growing stronger and could attract support from Japan and India. The Philippines has already signed the Mutual Defense treaty with the US. All these developments can lead to an emergence of a new regional security architecture in Southeast Asia and undermine the efforts of ASEAN.
Research Officer, IPCS
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