There are a few things I know to be true. One, is that we have unlimited wants but have limited resources. The second is that, based on realist principles, when men desire the same, indivisible thing, conflict arises.
This nature of men is best displayed in the current South China Sea conflict between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Brunei and few other countries in the region. The territorial disputes lasted for years but more recent developments magnified the heated tensions to a point where violence does not seem so far-fetched. More than $5 trillion worth in trade goes through the sea every year and the depths of the water itself hold around 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves as well as between 11 billion barrels of oil, making the territory more valuable and more contested. Sovereignty over even a few of these resources and trading paths would provide an understandable advantage. Sovereignty over the sea, however; would provide an unrealistic, impossible amount of power.
The area surrounded by the red nine-dash line is what China claimed as their territory based on what are said to be, historical sources. The majority of the other countries involved base their claims on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states that every country’s Exclusive Economic Zone does not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the coastline. As shown on the map above, this means that the territories that claim overlap must either be divided, given up or taken entirely.
Of course, that conclusion is easier said than achieved. Countries are locked in a back-and-forth exchange of tactful actions and stubborn intentions, which leads to the slow-burning progress of the conflict. All have agreed that the resolution shall be agreed on peacefully (multiple times) but none have made a progressive move to do so.
As a result, friction between countries rise as each new development made with self-interest is carefully observed and reacted to. Consequently, claiming sovereignty over such a large area, it only makes sense that most of the conflict developments involve China asserting their power and presence to give their claims more legitimacy.
Conflicts began as early as April 2014 when satellite photos displayed China dredging sand to build reefs into islands before moving an oil rig close to the Paracel Islands, sparking anti-Chinese protests and straining ties in May. The oil rig was removed as Chinese civilians were injured, some even killed, in these protests. It is now known as the Haiyang Shiyou 981 standoff. Fast forward to 2016, military drills are conducted on the contested islands and Chinese coast guards are involved in most of the South China Sea clashes. The retraction of a joint ASEAN statement on the conflict is proof of China’s influence and ability to hold these assertions.
On the flip side, this means that most of the other developments are done in retaliation to those actions, be it intentional or not. The topic is sensitive in speech alone, where a simple reference to the dispute could result to a criticism of the speaker. When the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong spoke on the issue in general terms during a visit to Japan, a Chinese-state-owned newspaper published retaliative piece in response to what had been said. Other oppositions are less subtle, such as firing at Chinese boats by the Indonesia navy and encouraging Vietnamese fishing boats to fish in the area despite the tension. Even Japan has sent military ships and equipment to Vietnam in a display of support.
Other more drastic actions include the involvement of the US in supporting other countries in the area as well as sending Navy Destroyers into the disputed waters purely to assert lawful ‘freedom of navigation’ rights but earned only continual rebukes. So it is hardly a surprise when Hague ruled the Philippines’ case against China concludes that China’s claims were false, had no legal bases and violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines. But China only dismissed the tribunal’s ruling as ‘null and void’.
Thus, it is expected but saddening to note that we only move backwards on the timeline of progress, with grumpier attitudes and even more strained relationships.
In a twist of irony, the country which had issued the legal call-out on China is now on their side. The newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has ordered to stop patrols on the South China Sea with the US, in his wish to move further away from their previous, long-standing alliance. In a recent visit to Beijing, which is also his first state visit since his term began, President Duterte agreed to cooperate with President Xi Jinping on the issue based on a bilateral consultation mechanism and implementation of past memorandums. While Duterte has not explicitly dismissed the Hague ruling, his eagerness to align the Philippines with China is an indication that he would not do anything to anger them directly.
This new-found alliance prompts confusion amidst the unease and spells more unpredictability for the future. Tensions could continue to rise and should something cross the blurry, twisted line, violence should not come as a surprise. The risk of armed conflict has been brought up multiple times, and considering China’s preparation for it as well as the continuing opposition towards their assertions—the risk maintains.
That being said, the restraints on the last resort have held up for good reason. Some economies still rely on good relations between the countries in the area, such as Cambodia (a part of ASEAN) and China and global trade. Then, there’s the obvious inconvenience that armed conflict would bring in an undoubtedly bigger mess than the existing one. Violence would undermine the 2002 Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China as well as international laws governing maritime disputes.
However, until a diplomatic solution is reached, violence will always be an option.
Talks of cooperation and restraints on military confrontation show the desire of all parties to avoid tensions that could lead to a point of no return. However, the fact that nothing has truly been done shows the uncompromising, human desire to have it all—whatever the cost.