August 13, 2016
Littoral states in South China Sea have historically been vying for maritime’s claims on multiple islands located in the ocean in order to gain fresh resources in terms of energy, oil and other consequential economic benefits by laying their hands to the unexplored sources of economic advantages in their respective jurisdictional islands. China, along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and other East Asian regional states is a claimant to the real sources of energy in the nearby oceanic region. Ideally, all the coastal states may workout regional peace – based solutions through mutual communication and dialogue. Pakistan being a historical political ally of China would prefer to support Chinese regional claims over nearby islands to improve its energy resources for a country which is placed at the top in terms of population size.
China’s unique position is globally recognised because of its being a peaceful state which believes in the development of the region besides attaining the goal of global political stability.
The South China Sea is the largest marginal sea in the West Pacific region, covering an area of 3.5 million kilometers. It is located south of mainland China and the island the Island of Taiwan, west of the Philippines, north of Kalimantan and Sumatra, and east of the Malay and the Indo-China peninsulas. It connects the Pacific through the Bashi and Balintang channels in the north-east, and the Mindoro and Balabac straits in the south-east; joins the Java Sea through the Karimata and Gaspar straits, and is linked with the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca in the south-west. Rich in fisheries resources and oil and gas reserves, the sea plays an important role in the economic development of the coastal countries.
China has sovereignty over four archipelagos in the South China Sea, namely, the Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha and Dongsha Islands, which are indicated by the dash lines on the map drawn in 1947. The Nansha Islands (or the Spratly Islands comprise over 230 islands, islets, sandbanks, rocks and shoals) that are scattered along a 1,000 kilometers span from the south-east to the north-west of the Sea. This area in question was initially discovered and named by China as the Nansha Islands, over which China was the first to exercise sovereignty and that exercise has been ongoing.
Understandably, US being thousands mile away from this part of the region too has developed political and military interest in order to circumscribe China within its geographical limits – that would create an across the ocean opening for US itself in terms of multiplying its political and economic clout. Rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years. China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols, while the US says it opposes restrictions on freedom of navigation and unlawful sovereignty claims – by all sides, but seen by many as aimed at China.
The frictions have sparked concern that the area is becoming a flashpoint with global consequences. China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
The South China Sea issue has become one of the major irritants in the China-US relations in recent years, over which the public opinion in the two countries are critically different from each other. There are even frictions in the sea between the two navies. The South China Sea seems like an outlet for the rivalry and confrontation that are building up of late between China and the US. As a result, two sides seem to be reassessing each other’s intentions on a strategic level. The latest rhetoric is about “militarising the South China Sea”. Whereas, the US announcements to carry out “freedom of navigation operational assertions” looks hawkish. Such frictions surrounding the South China Sea are leading to further strategic mistrust and hostility. American scholar David M. Lampton was straightforward when he observed worriedly in reference to the existing situation, “A tripping point in the US-China relations is upon us”. It is obvious that the South China Sea issue is a major catalyst for the troubled China-US relations, if not the key contributing factor.
China has all along stood for peacefully settling territorial and maritime delimitation disputes through negotiation with States directly concerned on the basis of respecting historical facts and in accordance with international law. On issues concerning territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation, China ideally should never accept any recourse to third-party settlement, or any means of dispute settlement that is imposed on it. Territorial sovereignty issues are not subject to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In order to resolve maritime delimitation disputes, China has been pursuing peaceful options to settle the regional states oceanic claims on nearby islands in order to improve regional economic and energy requirements of littoral states without legally compromising the spirit of Article 298 of UNCLOS.
In China, it is widely believed that it is the US’s Asia – Pacific rebalances strategy, its taking sides on disputes in the South China Sea, and its direct intervention that have escalated the tensions and made the issue more complicated. It is obvious from the incidents and events that have unfolded in the South China Sea over the years that all disputes are centered on sovereignty and rights over the Nansha Islands and their surrounding waters. In fact, such disputes were not uncommon in Third World countries in modern history, including during the Cold War era. But the discovery of abundant oil reserves in the Nansha waters in the late 1960s and the introduction of international arrangements concerning the EEZs or the continental shelf, such as the Convention on the Continental Shelf and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, provided fresh incentives for other claimants to covet and grab China’s Nansha Islands.
Pakistan has a role to play in South China Sea’s regional geopolitical situation as a sincere ally of China and other littoral states since Pak-China relations do have a background in regional economic development, energy up-scaling as well as peace in East Asia. Pakistan is a beneficiary of all CPEC-related projects being implemented in the region. What Pakistan would prefer to support is an overall development of South Asia when compared with other continents of the globe in order to develop the human resource on global Human Development Index (HDI).
(The writer is an ex-COMSATS Islamabad researcher in Project studies. Can be reached at (firstname.lastname@example.org)