South China Sea : A Latent Flashpoint

By Misbah Azam, Ph.D.

Territorial disputes over the handful of islands of the East and South China Sea have already thrashed relations between China and countries like Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei in recent years. The South China Sea region is the area that is the home to a wealth of natural resources, fisheries, trade routes, and military bases. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimates that the South China Sea contains 126 billion barrels of crude oil (compared to Kuwait which has some 93 billion barrels of crude oil reserves), although, other sources claim that the reserves of oil in the South China Sea may be about 7.9 billion barrels. All of this is at stake in the increasingly frequent diplomatic — and sometime low intensity military — impasse among the countries of the region. Some analysts in Asia and Europe believe that the Obama’s announced “Pivot in East Asia” policy is one cause of growing paranoia among Chinese and it’s raising tensions even further in the already scorching region. Although the United States does not openly support any party in the region openly, however, it has significant political, security, and economic interests over the issue of freedom of navigation in China’s 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in which, the US considers it has a right to operate its military vessels. The tension between US and China is shaping not only due to the Chinese insecurity about its territorial and maritime limits but it is also due the anxiety in Washington about the China’s growing military power and its regional ambitions.
In April 2015, at the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan, the CBS News quoted some Western diplomats saying that China’s increasing economic engagement with Pakistan should be seen in the context of Beijing’s “efforts to counter the US efforts to deepen alliances around the Asia-Pacific region”. The 2012 regional strategy of President Obama’s administration – The Pivot to East Asia — predominantly emphasizes the “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights”. However, China sees the Pivot to East Asia strategy as a part of America’s policy to contain and confine the military power and economic expansion of China with the help of India, Japan, Australia and the coastal states in the South and East China Sea. Proponents of this theory in China’s ruling circle believe that United States needs a militarily, economically and socially weak and divided China so that US can continue its martial hegemony in Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa.
There could be more than one possible incident which could potentially prompt US and China to unleash their fire power in the South China Sea against each other. Since the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty, which defines the rights of nations how they can use the oceans of the world — came into force in 1994 — does not prevent any country to conduct their military exercises in China’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) even without the permission of the coastal state. The US believes it could decide to carry out some military activity in the Chinese EEZ. However, any miscalculation during these activities from any side could provoke an armed response from China, because China believes that any such activity without the coastal states’ consent violates Chinese law and international law. In April 2001, when China’s J-8II interceptor fighter jet engaged the American EP-3E ARIES II signal intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, which was operating about 100 miles away from the Chinese military installation in the Paracel Island, accidentally collided near the Hainan Island which was around 70 miles away from the collision point, it resulted in an international dispute between China and US. The American EP-3 was forced to make emergency landing in Hainan Island but the pilot of J-8 died in the accident. Another incident occurred in 2009 in the Chinese EEZ when a Chinese submarine collided with a U.S. destroyer’s towed sonar array. Similar incident can occur again, especially, after the fact that China has huge presence of Chinese submarines. Any collisions or provocation could prompt US to dispatch armed vessels and minor miscalculation could cause a bloody conflict.
Recently an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China has no legal rights to claim the resource within the “9-dashed line” – a U-shaped line in the South China Sea — which extends hundreds of miles to the south and east of China’s island province of Hainan and covers some 90% of the disputed waters of South and East China Sea. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected the ruling because the decision has long term implications for China, since the region inside the 9-dashed line sees almost $5 trillion worth of trade every year.
It’s true that the wealth and control of the region inside of 9-dashed line are the main issues for China, however, China is also frustrated about the alleged role of the West against its growing influence in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In 1959, much before the maritime disputes were escalated, China established an office which was responsible to look over and manage the developments in Xisha, Nansha and Zongsha Islands. That time – even later until 1970 – not even a single legal document in the Philippines expressed any claim of Nansha Island. Neither any international treaty, which defines Philippine’s territorial brinks, indicate that the South China Sea Islands are part of Philippines. However, in 1968, when the report – issued by the Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas (CCOP) — revealed that the east and south of Nansha Island contains huge reservoirs of oil and gas, the dispute in South China Sea came to the spotlight.
Because of its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, the US can be pulled into the conflict between Philippines and China. The treaty was signed on August 30, 1951 in Washington, D.C. between representatives of the Philippines and the United States. It states, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” Philippines and China can get involved into the armed conflict over the natural gas reservoirs in the tablemount Reed Bank, which is around 80 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan province. Although the Reed Bank – which is either the part of Spratly Island archipelago or inside the Dangerous Ground — is located within the region which is claimed by Philippine and called as Exclusive Economic Zone (Philippine EEZ) — economic rights to the area are disputed.
Although, China and Vietnam can also get into the arms conflict over seismic surveys and oil and gas drilling and the US can be drawn into the conflict, but the dispute between China and Philippines is more likely and has a potential to transform into another super-power conflict which could threaten the world peace. The US’s sudden romance with India – although the US interest in India is partly economic — further alarms China.

With the changing geopolitical realities and formation of new allegedly hostile alliances led by the West, China’s paranoia about defending its territorial sovereignty has aggravated because if such alleged alliance is ever materialized, it may have a potential to impose a naval blockade on the narrow 1.5 nautical miles Malacca strait and strangle China economically. China believes that it must preempt the situation and form its own alliances to counter the possible hostility against China. However, the US and China understand the importance of their relationship and the need to work together to fight rampant issues like nuclear proliferation, terrorism and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction. Both the US and China have major stakes in preventing any escalation of conflict in the South China Sea. After the tribunal in The Hague ruling in favor of Philippines, at one hand, instead of further pushing China to the corner, the US should work with China, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei to agree upon new terms to to use the the disputed waters. On the other hand, China should not insist to exploit its maritime hegemony inside the 9-dashed line and allow the coastal countries to use their rights in the waters. The United Nations’ member countries should reformulate the Law of the Sea all over and redefine the rights and responsibilities to the nations with respect to their use of oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, engagement in the military activities and the management of marine natural resources, especially for the East and South China Sea to avoid any future conflict which may have a potential to bring the humanity at the brink of total annihilation.