Chinese muscularity in the South China Sea

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    • China has continued to assert claims to a wide swath of the South China Sea for a decade.

    Dispute of the South China Sea 

    • Location of South China Sea:
      • It is bounded on the northeast by the Taiwan Strait (by which it is connected to the East China Sea), on the east by Taiwan and the Philippines; on the southeast and south by Borneo, the southern limit of the Gulf of Thailand, and the east coast of the Malay Peninsula; and on the west and north by the Asian mainland. 
    • About the dispute:
      • Southeast Asian countries like China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have had disputes over the contentious South China Sea region for centuries
      • The two primary points of contention are:
        • The Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the sea.
        • Nine-dash line:
          • Beijing stakes claim to most of the region and at the heart of this claim is the U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’ that includes as much as 90 percent of these waters. 
          • This dotted line was adopted from Chinese maps in the 1940s, and represents Beijing’s claim over the sea and all the land features that are contained within the line.
    • Significance of the region:
      • The South China Sea (SCS) is important not just to its littoral countries
      • It has been a transit point for trade since early medieval times, contains abundantly rich fisheries, and is a repository of mineral deposits and hydrocarbon reserves.

    China’s dominance in the region

    • Claim of sovereignty:
      • China currently claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea, and some Chinese officials refer to it as the country’s ‘blue national soil’ — a term used to refer to the country’s offshore waters.
      • Each of the dashes (of the nine-dash line), according to both the Chinese and the Taiwanese, represents the median line between the islands within the South China Sea and the large landmasses comprising the sea’s littorals.
    • Dominance display:
      • Growing Chinese muscularity in the SCS is visible in the following ways:
        • Increased patrolling and live-fire exercising by Chinese naval vessels; 
        • Rmming and sinking of fishing vessels of other claimant countries; 
        • Renaming of SCS features; and 
        • Building of runways, bunkers, and habitation for possible long-term stationing of personnel on the atolls claimed by China.
      • Chinese exploration and drilling vessels compete aggressively with those of other littoral countries in the disputed waters.
    • China’s New Maritime Law for the South China Sea:
      • In a bid to regulate foreign ships, China notified new maritime rules warranting vessels to report their information while passing through what China sees as its “territorial waters”.
        • Operators of submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials and ships carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas and other toxic and harmful substances are required to report their detailed information upon their visits to Chinese territorial waters”.

    UNCLOS’ Tribunal verdict

    • In 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)  in The Hague concluded that 
      • China’s historic rights claim over the maritime areas (as opposed to land territories and territorial waters) inside the nine-dash line has no lawful effect if it exceeds what it is entitled to under the UNCLOS.
      • It held that none of the features of the Spratlys qualified them as islands, and there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights and to the resources within the ‘nine-dash line’
      • The award implied that China violated the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
      • It noted that China had aggravated the situation by undertaking land reclamation and construction, and had harmed the environment and violated its obligation to preserve the ecosystem
    • China’s dismissal of the vedict:
      • China dismissed the award as “a political farce under the pretext of law.”

    Settlement options for surrounding nations

    • Given the power equations, not a single country challenged China, which agreed to settle disputes bilaterally, and to continue work on a Code of Conduct with countries of the ASEAN
    • While avoiding military confrontation with China, the countries are seeking political insurance, strengthening their navies, and deepening their military relationships with the United States.

    Options for India & way ahead

    • The SCS carries merchandise to and from India. It follows that India has a stake in the SCS, just as China has in the Indian Ocean.
    • Defence diplomacy & Strategic Partnerships: 
      • India must continue to actively pursue its defence diplomacy outreach in the Indo-Pacific region: 
        • Increase military training and conduct exercises and exchanges at a higher level of complexity, 
        • Extend Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief activities,
        • Share patrolling of the Malacca Strait with the littoral countries, etc. 
      • The Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships that India has concluded with Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the U.S., and Vietnam could be extended to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
    • Enhancing the military capacity of Andaman and Nicobar:
      • India must also buttress the military capacity of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. 
      • These have immense geo-strategic value, as they overlook Asia’s maritime strategic lifeline and the world’s most important global sea lane. 
      • In this time of turbulence, India cannot afford to continue undervaluing one of its biggest assets.

    United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

    • The UNCLOS is an international treaty which was adopted and signed in 1982. 
    • It replaced the four Geneva Conventions of April, 1958, which respectively concerned the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the continental shelf, the high seas, fishing and conservation of living resources on the high seas.
    • The Convention has created three new institutions on the international scene:
      • the international Tribunal for Laws of the Sea
      • the International Seabed Authority
      • the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf

    Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

    • Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all states have a right to 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to exploit the resources of the sea and seabed, as measured from their land territories. 
    • Where these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants.

    Source: TH