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School TodayDisputed claims in the South China Sea

Disputed claims in the South China Sea

Published: 23rd Nov 2021 7:52 pm

Chinese leader Xi Jinping said his country will not seek dominance over Southeast Asia or bully its smaller neighbours as friction over the South China Sea intensifies. China has repeatedly sought to overcome concerns about its rising power and influence in the region, particularly its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea that overlaps with claims by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines. Read here the disputed claims in the South China Sea plaguing the region for decades…

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The South China Sea is likely to remain one of the thorniest issues between China and ASEAN as they mark 30 years of ties and struggle to negotiate a long-planned code of conduct for the disputed waterway, analysts say.

As tensions in the South China Sea mount, it’s important to understand how this dispute began and what international law says about freedom of navigation and competing maritime claims in the waters.

Militarisation of the sea

In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted and signed, formalising extended maritime resource claims in international law. At this time, no fewer than six governments had laid claim to the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Since then, there has been a creeping militarisation of the waters by nations seeking to secure extended maritime resource zones.

In 2009, Vietnam began reclaiming land around some of the 48 small islands it had occupied since the 1970s. In response, China began its much larger reclamations on submerged features it first began to occupy in the 1980s.

China’s claim

The South China Sea is a vast area measuring 3.6 million square kilometres, more than double the size of the Gulf of Mexico. It takes a modern warship just over three days to sail at top speed of 30 knots from its Northern edge at Taiwan to the Southern edge at the Strait of Malacca.

China’s claim to the sea is based both on the Law of the Sea Convention and its so-called “nine-dash” line. This line extends for 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, encompassing over half of the sea.

In a historic decision in 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against part of China’s claims to the sea in a case brought by the Philippines. China rejected the authority of the tribunal and its finding in the case.

International law

Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all States have a right to 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” 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.

Way forward

  • New arbitration processes to bring necessary mediation, facilitation and binding resolution mechanism which can move the military dispute to border management and to joint development finally.
  • International disputes should be settled by peaceful means in line with international laws on the principle of safeguarding maritime security, navigation and overflight rights and freedoms.

Area: South China Sea covers more than 3 million sq km

Trade: Over $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the sea annually

Oil and gas: Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed

Bordering States: The People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

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