US-China global contestation has sharpened and the Ukraine crises has only added to geo-political fissures. No region has remained immune from their impacts and nor has the South China which has great strategic and economic value for countries in the Indo Pacific Region and beyond.
(i) Through its waters, 60% of the world’s maritime trade passes and it is the second busiest international sea route. Hence, countries have an interest in secure, safe, open and accessible sea lanes of communications in these waters.
(ii) South China Sea is rich in resources. By some rough estimates, there are about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of known natural gas reserves. This highlights its economic significance.
China has, over a period of time, steadily stepped up its activities in the South China Sea as it needs for resources increased and it asserted its historical maritime territorial claims on the basis of its own so called 9-Dash Lines.
China built artificial structures and naval facilities on disputed islands. It seized rocks, atolls and islets in the region, and further militarised these man-made/China-made islands to have greater control over the maritime region.
China’s claims in the SCS have been contested by Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The claims and counter-claims on the islands and waters remain unresolved. South China Sea remains alive with frequent skirmishes.
Claimant countries have in their own ways pushed back against Chinese claims, and asserted their own territorial rights. Philippines initiated international arbitration case in 2013. The Arbitration while ruling in favour of Philippines, rejected the claims of China, based on the 9-Dash Lines which have no legal basis. There are several instances of clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels and Vietnam, on its part, has continued to drill for oil in the disputed areas. There are also several instances of China’s stand-offs with Indonesia and Malaysia.
ASEAN efforts to ease tensions and create guidelines for maintaining stability resulted in the China - ASEAN Declaration of Conduct in South China Sea in 2002. Interestingly, the Declaration affirmed the commitment of all the signatory countries to UNCLOS. And despite that China did not accept the Arbitral ruling. Ten years down the line in 2012, it was due to an impasse over South China Sea that the ASEAN FMs failed to issue a communique. Today, it is 20 years since the DOC was concluded – the region is seeing greater tensions as compared to the last century.
Negotiations between China and ASEAN to work toward a Code of Conduct have been going on for a fairly long period of time and it is not clear when this would be concluded. If and when concluded, will the Code of Conduct help in stabilizing South China Sea? The record of the Declaration of Conduct has not been very encouraging and for the counties which are not on the negotiating table of the Code of Conduct it is essential that the basis of the Code is international law, in particular UNCLOS 1982.
China’s contention there should not be any involvement of extra regional powers in South China Sea is unacceptable as these are international waters, where all nations have the right of freedom of navigation and over-flight and unimpeded access for lawful commerce, as per UNCLOS.
Moreover, China has now moved into the second island chain and is expanding its footprint in South Pacific Island nations. There has been a push back by several countries, including Australia. What would be its impact of these extended activities of China in the South China Sea?
There are a greater number of military exercises being undertaken in the region in East China Sea, Cross Straits – how will all these impact the environment in the South China Sea?
New partnerships are emerging in the Indo-Pacific region whether it is QUAD, AUKUS or IPEF – bringing options to the countries in the region.
Am sure the discussions today will touch on many of these aspects, besides others.