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The South China Sea Dispute: Explained

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Competing claims over the South China Sea (and its uninhabited island groups, particularly the Paracel and the Spratly islands) have been an ongoing territorial dispute since the late 1940s, often teetering on the verge of turning dangerous. With China’s emergence as a superpower and the increasingly aggressive stands taken by the US, Vietnam, and Philippines, the conflict has once again resurfaced. With recent events unfolding China’s staunch military activities in the area, here’s an explanation of what is the dispute about, exactly.

The South China Sea is economically (and militarily) significant

The South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Trillions of dollars in trade pass through it every year. It is an extremely important water body in geopolitical terms. In fact, according to the World Bank, the South China Sea holds oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Moreover, studies made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, show that this body of water holds one-third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity.

Fishing is thus the major source of livelihood for millions of people in the region. In addition, any country that is able to capture the disputed islands would also be able to extend their military operations throughout the region. This is why it is a highly disputed territory among at least seven nations.

Countries in the vicinity have claimed ownership

China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, much to the consternation of its neighbours, who have also claimed the same territories. These claims are based on historical and colonial ownership and the lack of reliable records from the chaotic post-World War II decolonisation process.

Not only that, they have actually started building islands

In the past decades, Vietnam and Philippines have been constructing facilities on existing islands and building new islands in the region. Although China started construction years later, it has been at a much-unprecedented pace. Today, the country has more island surface in the sea than all the other countries combined. But it was only in 2015 that the world became aware of this development when a satellite image showed China building an airstrip on a Spratly island.

The South China Sea dispute has been heavily debated internationally

The US has strongly opposed China’s construction of islands in the sea. To counter China’s action, they have channeled their resources on strengthening existing military alliances with Japan and Australia, while building new ones with Vietnam. The US Marine, that has been operating in the region since World War II, has also stepped up patrols and exercises. They ensure China benefits from freedom of navigation and flight, a move that the latter considers provocative. Meanwhile, China has been proposing closed-door bilateral negotiations on matters relating to the dispute, much to the opposition of regional countries.

But legally, it’s been a tough call to take

The legal situation remains murky. China’s actions are against the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China is a full participant. The US previously attempted to point this out, but its position was weakened by the fact that the country itself is not a full participant of UNCLOS. In 2013, Philippines had filed a case with an international tribunal-The Hague, disputing Chinese construction on islands claimed by both countries. The tribunal passed its judgment in favour of Philippines claiming the latter’s sovereignty over the disputed islands. It stated that the islands fell within the exclusive economic zone of Philippines and are not under any possible ownership by China. The Chinese government did not accept this verdict, which was again said to spike tensions between China and its neighbours.

China’s militarization of the sea faces criticism

In recent events, the US warned China against militarization of the newly built islands. China has been building military bases and deploying anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on the fake islands. US officials have conveyed their displeasure with China’s leadership and have instructed the latter to shut down military operations as soon as possible. Since these are disputed waters, China’s military developments have been seen as unsuited and hostile by the US Marine.

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