Conflicts are inevitable in our day to day lives. A conflict can be defined as a disagreement between or among parties. The parties perceive the conflict to be a threat to their interests, needs and concerns. Conflicts can occur in different contexts for instance at home, in an organization, within a country or across borders.
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It is, therefore, important for all the parties involved to take necessary measures aimed at dealing with the conflict. The South China Sea conflict is an issue that has drawn a lot of concern and debate among different parties. The issue is believed to be a probable hot-spot of conflict in South East Asia in the near future due to lack of ways of finding a solution to the situation soon.1
This piece of work gives a critical analysis of the situation in South China Sea. Much emphasis will be given to aspects such as the history of tensions in South China Sea, the territorial authority in the area, the desire of surrounding countries, the relation changes between those countries over the years, the source of this conflict, and the reaction from each nations/UN/third parties.
The possibility of war occurring in South China Sea will also be analyzed as well as military conditions of the involved nations and their diplomatic strategies and how this would influence war.
History of tensions in South China Sea and the source of this conflict
South China Sea is an area that has been faced with conflict over a relatively long period of time. Geographically, the sea is bordered by a number of countries including the People’s Republic of China (Hong Kong and Macau), the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam and Indonesia.2
The South China Sea is a region that is well known for the conflict that has surrounded it for quite some time. It is ranked as one of the world’s busiest waterways and one of the most disputed.3
The South China Sea is well equipped with reefs, islets and a considerable number of islands (more than 200). All these are claimed by a majority of countries that surround it. The countries include Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and China.
The conflicts in the South China Sea can be traced back in the 1970s. There is much that has been written in regard to the disputes surrounding the South China Sea which involves both the waters as well as the islands. Right from the time when UNCLOS III was still questionable, in the 1970s, the South China Sea region had already been deemed to be a potential spot associated with trouble.4
Among the disputes that are linked with the South China Sea, those between Vietnam and China with respect to the islands has been considered to be most serious, without any possibilities of having adequate solutions. In January of 1974, there was a significant occurrence with respect to the conflicts in the South China Sea. The then South Vietnamese government and China had a clash over the Paracels.
This move led to solitary Chinese control over the entire Paracels, a condition that has remained up to today. Although the disputes and conflicts in the South China Sea have involved a number of countries, it is evident that China has had the greatest influence in all the undertakings.
China has crossed with almost every nation that is involved, with the main aim being to get the highest possible powers and control over the South China Sea and thus enjoy all the benefits.5
Despite being considered as a potential trouble region, the South China Sea, initially, between the 1970s and 1980s, was not a security issue even though it was clear that some negative relations and developments were being experienced in the South China Sea.6
In 1997, Vietnam raised issues in regard to possessions of what it claimed to rightfully own. Some of the claims involved; 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), 12 nautical miles of territorial waters and 12 nautical miles of contiguous zone. Other claims were also made by countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines.
Another notable dispute is that which occurred in 1988 when China and Vietnam had another clash over the islands. This time, the result was that China took control of six islands all located in the Spratlys. This struggle went on for some time with durations of peace and others of disagreements that raised security concerns.7
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Today, China seems to be the threat to the condition in the South China Sea especially in regard to restoration of peace and stability. China uses any means to have control of the region, even force. Other major disputes took place in 1995 and 1999. It is clear that China is opportunistic8.
The sea and its islands has been a source of conflict as many countries claim its sovereignty. The South China Sea is deemed to be an incredibly important asset. This is more especially because of the resources contained therein for instance marine biodiversity such as fish resources, oil reserves and natural gas reserves.
Most of the islands are deemed to be very rich in hydrocarbon resources, an aspect that makes them admirable due to their value. The fact that most Asian countries concentrate on importation of oil related products from the Middle East makes the South China Sea a hot spot especially due to proximity.
The fact that the sea also offers a means of transport for different products emanating from different parts of the world also makes it resourceful. It is a critical trade route. This statement could be justified by the fact that it supports trade from different countries for instance Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.
Goods from these countries are usually transported through the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Strait and then to China, Japan as well as South Korea through the South China Sea. This shows how significant the South China Sea is and hence no party wants the other to dominate it. China is, however, the number one threat.
Global naval strategy is also another aspect that heightens the conflict among the Southeast Asian nations and China. Currently, China is very vigilant in seeking naval predominance in the South China Sea in an attempt to be a global naval power. This effort ought to include some projection into the Indian Ocean, an area that is deemed to be extremely essential in regard to power and competition.
Other Asian countries are also in a move to seek reinforcement of their naval competence for instance South Korea and Japan. The fact that the South China Sea is a resource is the main source of conflict as all the countries want to gain the sovereignty of the area to enjoy the benefits.9
The territorial authority in the areas
There have been many territorial claims, made by many countries, over the South China Sea. This is the major source of disputes leading to the conflict issue. The leading countries in claiming of the territorial authority are the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These two claim that almost the entire sea is theirs. This is so serious to an extent of demarking their claims within nine-dotted line.10
Other notable claims include the claims; over Scarborough Shoal by China, Taiwan and Philippines, over the waters of the Natuna Islands by the Taiwan, Indonesia and China, over waters located west of Spratly Islands by Vietnam, Taiwan and China, over the Camago and Malampaya gas fields by the Philippines, Taiwan and China.
There have also been claims over the Strait of Johore and the Strait of Singapore by Malaysia and Singapore and over the areas in Gulf Thailand by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.
The Paracel Islands are also disputed between Vietnam and People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China. In addition to this, most of the islands around the South China Sea are also disputed between countries such as Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines, Taiwan, China and Malaysia11.
Territorial authority regarding the South China Sea can clearly be understood when looked at from the perspective of the islands. The islands disputes are different in context and coverage. Some of them are bilateral, involving two countries, others trilateral, involving three countries while others are multilateral involving more than three parties.
There have been many disputes regarding islands in the South China Sea.12 Most of the islands are associated with no indigenous people since a great percentage of them are usually naturally under water. There are those which are even permanently submerged in water. Some of the islands include; the Spratlys islands, the Prates islands, and island located on the Paracels.13
The major disputes are, however, those regarding the Spratlys and the islands located on the Paracels. This is mainly because these involve not only the Southeast Asians but also those from other parts.14 There also many parties involved when it comes to the Spratlys.
This brings about complexity in the disputes since a lot of efforts are required to resolve them taking into account interests and concerns of all the parties involved, a task that is not easy. In the early 20th century, the Republic of China claimed about 132 islands in the South China Sea.
This, therefore, followed that whenever any other country would claim ownership of any of the islands, China would protest. This can be seen when it protested over the French government occupied the Taiping Island in 1933.15
China and Vietnam have been on persisting conflicts. They both claim territorial sovereignty over the Paracel group of islands. The region was initially occupied by the earlier regime of South Vietnam until the year 1976 when the People’s Republic of China assumed its control through use of force.
Up to date, Vietnam still claims territorial sovereignty over the islands despite the fact that it was taken away by China. There is, therefore, a continuous struggle over the islands by these two countries. For this reason, the Paracel concept has been identified as a bilateral issue that actively involves Vietnam and China. 16
Vietnam also has claims over the Spratlys islands. At present moment, the People’s Republic of China occupies about nine islands while Vietnam occupies 29 of them. Other countries that occupy some islands include Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Although Taiwan claims all the Spratly Islands, it occupies a very small percentage, just one island. The Philippines also claims most of the Spratly islands but in the real sense, it occupies eight islands. On the other hand, Malaysia occupies three islands which are located on its continental shelf. 17
All the above named claims is enough justification that the South China Sea is associated with considerable number of disputes which make the conflict condition severe and difficult to solve. A lot of efforts are required in order to solve the disputes among the above named countries.
The fact that a single country is involved in more than one dispute is also a problem, meaning that it requires a lot time and effective strategic measures to settle the disputes. There is a problem presented by lack of facts to support the different claims since most of them rely on vague historical records or thinking. Proper strategies should be applied to solve these situations.18
The desire of surrounding countries
Various countries express different desires in their fight for the South China Sea, with some seeming genuine while others are questionable. The main protagonists are however the Philippines, China and Vietnam. China has had the most significant control or influence in the whole issue of the South China Sea conflicts. It has all along shown some interest in obtaining total control and ownership over the South China Sea.19
This is mainly for personal and selfish gains where it does not want the other parties to also benefit. China has been extremely aggressive in all the activities involved, always trying to predominate over the other countries. In some instances, China has resulted in the use of force rather than negotiations.
This has mainly been fueled by the fact that compared to other surrounding countries; China has got a lot of powers. The country that has tried hard to keep at par with China is Vietnam.20
The other Southeast Asian countries have also not been without some desires. Most of them have claimed territorial sovereignty. This has been in an attempt to have a considerable amount of the benefits that go hand in hand with the resources and competitive advantages associated with the different attributes of the South China Sea.21
Due to the ever increasing conflicts, most of the surrounding countries are ready to do whatever it takes to resolve the disputes so that there may exist some peace and good relations among them. It is through the understanding and coming together of the various countries that an effective and long lasting solution could be achieved.22
The relation changes between those countries over the years
There are a number of countries which are involved in the South China Sea conflict. Over the years, relationships among the countries have significantly changed.
The territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been a source of serious tension among some of the members of the ASEAN- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China for a considerable period of time especially in the 20th century.
However, with the passage of time, the territorial disputes have become less contentious. This can be attributed to a number of factors, for instance, the step that China has assumed; taking an active position in the Beijing’s Southeast Asian ‘smile diplomacy’.
This is considered to be an extremely crucial aspect since the diplomatic offensive is aimed at dealing with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations concerns that are related to security especially with regard to the rising China. This has greatly influenced China’s relations with other countries that are involved in the South China Sea Conflict particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
However, despite the smile diplomacy, there are still some controversies in regard to the issue of territorial sovereignty. This can clearly be seen in the current relationships that exist between China and other countries especially the Philippines and Vietnam.23
The relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Vietnam is considered to be the most complicated and conflict-prone when compared to relationships between the People’s Republic of China and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. When the situation is looked at from Vietnam’s point of view, it is the most weighed down by historical issues.
This can be seen through the 2000 years of Chinese rule, initially as a formal part of the Chinese empire as for the period between the first century BC and 938 AD and later as a tributary state up to the year 1885.24
During this time, there was a lot of tension between these two nations, characterized by a high level of extreme attributes of enmity and amity. China is a country that has been very much involved with the South China Sea conflicts having disputes with almost all the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 25
All in all, the Chinese culture, economic reform and system of governance calls for some respect and admiration despite the fact that it has it has attracted some feelings of hatred, bullying and resentment among other nations as it tries to control its political destiny. 26
There is also a conflicting perception of China in regard to Vietnam, on one hand it is a persistent fighter of colonialism that demanded for Chinese support between 1949 and 1970s and on the other hand, a deceitful unit of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the 1980s.27
It is, however, worth noting that in the year 1991, the relationship between China and Vietnam greatly improved following the normalization of their relations. This step is associated with a significant economic development, that of bilateral relations.
Since then, the relations have significantly improved and deepened to a level that many parties did not expect. “Today, bilateral relations are guided by the official mantra of “long-term stability, orientation toward the future, good neighborliness and friendship, and all round cooperation” in the spirit of “good neighbors, good friends, good comrades, and good partners.”28. China and Vietnam are great trade partners.
Another relation that is worth discussing is that between China and the Philippines. There have been considerable disputes between these two countries. China has for example showed a lot of interest in investing in the Philippines’ collapsing infrastructure and the booming Philippine exports to the People’s Republic of China.29
The national oil companies based in China, the Philippines and Vietnam entered an agreement and advocated the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) to conduct appropriate research on the disputed waters of the South China Sea and this meant that China and the Philippines relations had entered the so called golden age.30
However, this did not last for a long time and after three years of establishment; the face of golden age was completely damaged following a succession of negative scandals and controversies.
“Allegations concerning corrupt practices associated with the provision of Chinese overseas development aid (ODA) have prompted Congressional investigations, resulting in the cancellation of several major Chinese-backed initiatives, while Arroyo’s opponents have called into question the constitutionality of the JMSU”31. This shows the seriousness of the disputes between these two countries.
In 2001, when President Arroyo gained power in the Philippines, the relations between China and the Philippines went through a great change. The president was prepared to rejuvenate the Philippine economy which had undergone a stagnant session.
The President wished to achieve this through taking in some aspects of the China’s economy which is more dynamic. This step necessitated that the bilateral relations that existed between these countries to be enhanced.32
One way through which this could be achieved was to make sure that the overlying sovereignty allegations in the South China Sea do not in any way hinder the growth and development of the bilateral bonds.
There were tense diplomatic and physical confrontations between China and Philippines in the 1990s as a result of the controversial issue concerning possession of the Spratly Islands. This, therefore, necessitated that strategic measures be taken to handle the situation for example through comprehensive engagement33.
The Philippines’ President was ready to do anything for prosperity of her nation which she believed that it would only be made possible through the reinforcement of the bilateral relations. The efforts by President Arroyo were not without some positive results. Trade between the two nations nourished greatly.
The International Monetary Fund asserted that the value of the bilateral trade rose significantly from $1.77 billion in 2001 to $5.3 billion in 2003. In 2006, the rise was also high reaching $8.29 billion.34
This is enough justification that the relations between China and Philippines improved as both countries had a symbiotic relationship with mutual benefits. Since the year 2002, the Philippines was able to enjoy a healthy trade surplus with China unlike other Association of Southeast Asian Nations partners that considered their relationships with China to bear no positive fruits. 35
Following the successful results of the implemented policy regarding enhancement of the bilateral results, the president of the Philippines, Arroyo, was pleased to proclaim that China was a good partner (a very good big brother) in 2007. Since then, these two countries have tried to solve their differences particularly in regard to territorial sovereignty in an effort to have relations that have long term mutual benefits.36
From the above discussion, it is clear that there have been a lot of disputes among ASEAN and China. China seems to have taken a major role in the South China Sea conflicts.
Some countries have been able to achieve beneficial relationships with China up to date while others ties never bore positive fruits. Vietnam and the Philippines are some of the countries, although after undergoing a lot, have gained worthy understanding and built beneficial ties especially with respect to trade. 37
Reaction from each nations/UN/third parties
The concept of South China Sea conflicts has attracted a lot of debate and concerns from different parties all in an aim to resolve the conflict that is associated with a lot of negative effects including deaths of individuals. The different parties have reacted in different ways resulting in different effects in regard to the situation.38
The United States of America is one of the parties that are involved in the South China Sea and the conflicts contained therein. The United States comes in as a party that is meant at resolving the disputes among the Southeast Asian nations and China. 39
However, when it is looked at critically, the United States has got other hidden agenda, to also benefit from the resource, the South China Sea.
Research shows that the United States has always been interested in the South China Sea region mainly because it offers the shortest and most convenient route from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. The area is also deemed to be significant for the movement of its fleets for various purposes, for instance, defending its allies in the area or even for global strategy.40
The United States position with respect to the South China Sea conflicts has proved to be consistent all through from the start.41 In the Paracel Clash of 1974, the United States Department asserted that the South China Sea disputes ought to be resolved by the claimants themselves.
This clearly showed that the United States was not ready to participate in solving the disputes but rather it believed that those parties that were involved had the power to come up with a solution.42 This can be clearly seen in the points that were given by Admiral Charles Larson, the then Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command, in an interview held in Malaysia in October 1991. Some of the points include:
- “The US maintained a non-committal stand as there was no interest for the US to intervene;
- It was a regional issue and the US had no contingency plan to go to the Spratlys in the event of a conflict;
- It would be up to the countries concerned to work together and regional groupings (such as ASEAN) to find a solution;
- The US preferred that the claimants resolve the issue through political channels rather than by military means;
- If China and Vietnam became hostile in asserting their claims, the US might work with ASEAN, the Soviet Union and other nations under the auspices of the United Nations to ensure that the aggressor followed accepted international behavior”43
Russia is also of concern when it comes to the South China Sea. There has been a rising trend between the countries of Southeast Asia and Russia.
For instance, Russia and Vietnam have been involved in developing oil reserves in the South China Sea. Russia is interested in the South China Sea and it identifies a need to enhance its international profile. In the event of some confrontations, Russia could face a lot of instability. All in all, Russia’s potential contribution in dealing with tension over the South China Sea is high.44
The possibility of war occurring in South China Sea
There is a controversy on the concept of there being a possibility of war in the South China Sea region as a result of the ever heightening conflicts. Research shows that there could either be two possibilities; in the event that the conflicts are not solved soon and in the right manner, there are higher chances of war in the region. In case the conflicts are dealt with in an appropriate manner, then there would be no chances of war.45
China and Vietnam have been involved in more serious conflicts, as compared to disputes between other nations. In an attempt to secure the South China Sea, there could be a war outbreak especially due to the fact that China is determined to do anything including the use of force so long as it gains control over the area.46
This could necessitate some interventions for example from the United States which could in turn heighten the chances of occurrence of nuclear war particularly if Beijing and Washington are to be involved. In simple terms, we cannot rule out the possibility of future war between China and the Southeast Asian nations. It could even involve the US navy inn case the tensions continue to rise47.
Some traces of war could be seen when China forced down a US Spy Plane and captured it in 2001 detaining the crew. Even in the event that the skirmishes are prevented, there are still some possibility of war breakout as the conflict has now involved third parties.
To limit the chances of war, all the parties involved should ensure that the geopolitical tensions that exist among them are completely separated from the economic issues. This is, however, not an easy thing and it requires a high degree of cooperation from all the parties.48
Military conditions of the involved nations and their diplomatic strategies and how this would influence war is another critical aspect that would help us in the understanding and analysis of the possibility of war occurring in the South China Sea. As noted earlier, there are various nations that are involved in the South China Sea conflicts. 49
All of the nations involved in the South China Sea conflicts have got varying capabilities especially when looked at in terms of their military conditions. This in turn determines their diplomatic strategies and the part they would play in the event of war. The military conditions could be looked at in terms of the bases, the navy and weapons.50
The South China Sea is associated with considerable military confrontations among the nations that lay different claims. This is evident right from the time China invaded the Paracel islands in the year 1974 all through to the detainment of the Chinese fishermen by Vietnam in September 2002.
The 1974 and 1988 confrontations were the major ones between 1974 and 1992. 51From 1992, however, there have been not less than ten significant confrontations exclusive of the non-military disputes that involved some form of exploration and drilling.52
In the recent past, there has been an increasing rate of confrontation which is an effect of military expansionism by different parties. This is an indication of increased risk of open conflict that is present in the South China Sea. 53
The risk is heighted by the fact that Vietnam and China have the military capacity of blocking any adverse resolution to the disputes. As long as the US maintains local military forces through bonds with the Philippines, the risk is checked. This means that there is little likelihood of either party to try a military takeover as the result of great risk of retaliatory US intervention.54
Conclusion and Recommendations
From the above discussion, it is evident that the conflict concerning the South China Sea is a serious issue. This is more so because it involves many countries making it difficult to resolve the disputes. A lot of efforts and considerable amount of time is required to make the countries come into agreement with each other in regard to the territories more especially on the resources contained therein.
Various countries express different desires in their fight for the South China Sea, with some seeming genuine while others are questionable. Although the problem ought to be regional and concerning just few countries, the problem has developed to a global conflict that is affecting almost every nation.55
The concept has attracted a lot of debate and concerns from different parties all in an aim to resolve the conflict that is associated with a lot of negative effects including deaths of individuals. The different parties have reacted in different ways resulting in different effects in regard to the situation as discussed earlier.
There is a controversy on the concept of there being a possibility of war in the South China Sea region as a result of the ever heightening conflicts.56 Research shows both sides, in the event that the conflicts are not solved soon and in the right manner, there are higher chances of war in the region. In case the conflicts are dealt with in an appropriate manner, then there would be no chances of war.57
It is clear that China has been opportunistic right from the year 1974 to present times. Another notable aspect is that the United States of America has maintained its position all along from the 1970s. To avert the eventual control of the South China Sea by China, a lot of effort is required.
First and foremost, the ASEAN should unite effectively and carry out strategic measures aimed at obtaining some control of the South China Sea.58 Some of the measures include; refraining from further consolidation of Vietnam’s position on the disputed islands to protect islands and reefs that are under its control and a quick completion of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea by the ASEAN59.
Another recommendable action is the working out of a concrete proposal that touches on the joint-development of the South China Sea by the parties involved particularly the four main ones namely the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia as opposed to engaging in quarrels all along. This proposal would help greatly as it would serve as a negotiation basis between the ASEAN parties and China.
There should also be effective discussions, particularly multilateral ones. This is because most of the disputes associated with the South China Sea involve more than two parties and thus, having bilateral discussions may not have positive impacts. ASEAN should also work in a united manner having the understanding that it is only through the combined efforts that China could be moved or influenced60.
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