South China Sea: A Geopolitical Tinderbox

As a vicious pandemic has massively impacted the world, it has also created a power vacuum for great power rivalry in the South China Sea (SCS). The region is turning to be a geopolitical hotspot due to the conflicting interests of the United States (US) and China. The recent move has been by the US as it sent aircraft carriers in the sea. Earlier, China moved forward in the region as other states were still engaged in battling the virus.

China has territorial claims in this region and is not willing to take a back seat. The US, however wants these waters to be free for navigation. These activities have roiled the waters of SCS. There are deviating interests in the region. For many, the US is just flexing its muscle in the region. A deeper analysis of the regional dynamic allows us to focus more on the strategic interests of both states in the SCS. The situation could flare-up if the tensions are not eased.

The US, a global player, wants these waters to be open for navigation as per Article 53 of the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS). Within Donald J. Trump’s presidency 13 successive “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) have been carried out by the US Navy, against China. These include operations in Xisha Island (Parcel Island), Nansha Islands (Spratly Island) and Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal).

Within Donald J. Trump’s presidency 13 successive “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) have been carried out by the US Navy, against China.

Since 2019, the US is increasing its presence in the SCS. The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report by US Navy has regarded China as a major threat for the US Navy in SCS. The report portrays the current strategic posture of Washington. The withdrawal of the US from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has further escalated tensions. It is believed that the US might deploy more medium, short-range missiles in the Western Pacific against China in the region.

Another US standpoint in the SCS is the broad rejection of China’s maritime claim. The US Ambassador Kelly Craft, commented “The United States rejects these maritime claims as inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.” Hence, the US response to counter China’s pre-eminence in the region is to prevent China from having a strong footing in the region. Also, it aims to preserve the claims of its allies in the region who have similar claims over the islands in the SCS.

Chinese pre-eminence in the region, hinders America’s position in the global arena as the region holds a third of the world trade. If Washington does not take adequate counter-measures then it will lead to a growing influence of Beijing over the old maritime route.

Furthermore, the US is willing to penetrate further in the region to prevent the Chinese stronghold and safeguard the interest of its allies. The US allies, South Korea and Japan, use the SCS for trade which helps them to connect with the world. Recently, the US Navy practiced joint military exercises with its allies in the SCS. It was meant to flex US’ military muscle and to maintain a strong footing in the region. The American Navy is even operating in China’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) which is allowed according to the US interpretation of UNCLOS. However, China does not agree. The US-China rift in the EEZ could increase the risk of direct military confrontation. Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, in his statement exclaimed that the US will come to the aid of the Philippines if China attacks Manila.

The US, has deployed two aircraft carriers in SCS and the media has created hype. But it’s important to note that even before this development, US Naval presence has been increasing in the region. For instance, there has been a 17% increase in US military exercises in the SCS over the past two years. It has several warships in the region including USS America (LHA-6) along with 10 vessels for reconciliation. The country has initiated Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) operations. Seventh Fleet conducts hundreds of drills every year. In the past, US EP-3 plane and Chinese-F8 fighter collided in 2001 in the SCS. But the event did not lead to a long-term conflict.

China’s strategy is to create an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) around the Spratly Islands as was done in Paracel Islands. For this, China is installing radars in the islands of the SCS.

The hegemonic ambitions of China correlated with its growing concentration in the SCS. China’s military presence in the region is a depiction of its ambitions to strengthen its hold in the SCS. Since 2009, China is achieving its interest in the SCS through a variety of tactics. China claims to have historic rights and is reclaiming the islands in the sea. Beijing is interested in the militarisation of these islands. To prevent any regional backlash, China is using legal arguments and diplomatic influence to expand its role.

China has announced two new municipal districts which will govern the Paracel and Spratly islands. This step will strengthen Chinese claims in SCS. For China, these islands are an inalienable part of its territory. It is a part of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” to bolster the standing of People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Chinese assertiveness in the region causes reservations for the US allies. But China is giving no consideration to this matter. It does not recognize the sovereign claim of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, Philippines or Vietnam in the SCS.

China’s strategy is to create an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) around the Spratly Islands as was done in Paracel Islands. For this, China is installing radars in the islands of the SCS. It is a part of Beijing’s plan to mark a straight baseline along the coastline that will delimit its territorial waters. China believes UNCLOS tribunal rules of 2016 will then no longer be applicable. China will be provided with 10% of the SCS. This will preserve its interest in that 10% and afterwards no foreign vessel will be able to pass without the permission of PLA.

 

The disputes will sustain until both sides sit together along with other regional actors to device a mechanism for maintaining stability.

Furthermore, China can claim a 200nm EEZ outward from these straight baselines. This will calcify China’s position in EEZ. The EEZ will encompass almost all of the SCS. The US-China conflicting interests will gain impetus as the US will push for high-seas’ freedom. The US will keep on sending its reconnaissance boats. Whereas China insists that no foreign exploration activity is acceptable in EEZ without permission. This situation will impact the US interest in the region. In such a scenario, the freedom of navigation will not be possible for the US allies. It will affect trade lines and fishing rights of the regional players. For the defence of Australia, Japan, Philippines and Taiwan, the US would keep on conducting reconnaissance operations.

Conclusively, the region will remain a geopolitical hotspot for great power rivalry between both countries. The US wants China to maintain status quo in the SCS. This will help to bolster the US performance in global governance by maintaining peace in the region. The disputes will sustain until both sides sit together along with other regional actors to device a mechanism for maintaining stability. The claimants of the SCS must resolve the conflict to promote regional integration, stability and international peace.

Ali Zafar

Ali Zafar

Mohammad Ali Zafar is currently pursuing a degree in International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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