A Tense Week in the South China Sea

This week has seen a number of events connected to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea. With China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia all staking claims in the region, the Sea is no stranger to tense confrontations. This past week was no different, with a string of minor clashes highlighting the sensitive situation in the region.

To provide some background, the South China Sea is located, as the name suggests, to the south of China. Most of the sea, though, is quite far from China and is in fact much closer to other countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The sea is of strategic importance, with many major shipping routes passing through the area. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, half of the world’s oil and gas shipments travel through the sea. And speaking of oil and gas, the sea itself has hugely valuable reserves of both, offering untold economic opportunity to whichever country controls it. Thus competition for control of the area is fierce.

Because international law grants control of the ocean to countries that control nearby land, most of the disputes are focused on atolls in the Spratly and Paracel island chains. Consequently, while it appears that China and Taiwan are nowhere near most of the sea, they justify their claims by asserting sovereignty of some or all of the islands in these chains. China, in an attempt to legitimize its claim to the entire sea, is constructing artificial islands and military installations on shoals in the region. This has provoked ire in the Philippines and Vietnam, who feel threatened by China’s escalating militarism. Thus the political situation in which the events of this week occurred is extremely tense. Now that the extent of the dispute is clear, I will briefly describe each of this week’s occurrences and explain their significance.

Arrests in Indonesia 

Last Saturday, a Chinese trawler was caught fishing off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Island, and eight crew members were taken into custody. While very little of Indonesia is located in the South China Sea, Natuna is located in its far southern reaches. According to the Indonesia, a Chinese coast guard vessel attempted to prevent the crew of the trawler from being detained for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. The Chinese government disputes these claims, saying that the trawler was fishing in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” Such a claim is certainly dubious, especially considered that the event occurred, according to The Guardian, only 4.3 kilometers of the coast of Indonesia.

The situation has escalated into a diplomatic spat between the two nations, as Indonesia’s foreign minister called a Chinese diplomat to discuss the issue on Monday. In the days that followed, China has demanded that Indonesia release its citizens and Indonesia has refused, reaffirming that it will prosecute the crew for its activities. An Indonesian official also rebuffed China’s justification of the issue, attacking the notion that “traditional” fishing grounds have any legitimacy in international law. The events of this week have been a turning point for Indonesia policies in the South China Sea, as it has, in the past, kept out of the dispute. But its muscular response to China’s provocations indicate that it is no longer willing to stand by as China expands into Indonesian territory.

Taiping Island

This week also marked a turning point for Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea. For decades, Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratly chain, has been administered by Taiwan. But on Wednesday, Taiwan held its first media tour of the island. The purpose of the trip appeared to be an attempt to prove that Taiping is an “island” as opposed to a “rock.” Why is the terminology so important? It comes down to, like most disputes in the region, a combination of competition for resources and the intricacies of international maritime laws.

Besides Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam both lay claim to Taiping and the waters that surround it. In an attempt to get its way, the Philippines has brought a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body that attempts to settle disputes between nations, that claims Taiping is simply a “rock” rather than an “island.” This distinction is important in international maritime law because of two concepts: “territorial waters” and “Exclusive Economic Zones.” Territorial waters are defined as part of a country’s territory and extend 12 nautical miles into the sea. An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from the nearest land, and only that country is allowed to use those waters for economic purposes. A “rock” is entitled to territorial waters but not an EEZ. An “island,” on the other hand, is entitled to both. Thus, because Taiwan wants to be able to claim an EEZ around Taiping Island, it flew the group of journalists there in an attempt to show that it is suitable for human life and is consequently an island rather than a rock.

“100 Chinese Boats”

In another provocative move, China appears to be encroaching on Malaysian territory as well as Indonesian. According to a Malaysian coastguard official, 100 Chinese fishing boats have been detected inside Malaysia’s EEZ. Malaysia has threatened legal action if the boats remain in its EEZ, and it has sent naval vessels to monitor them.

Malaysia’s response is indicative of the general political climate in the South China Sea region. By threatening to take legal action, it is sending a strong message that China’s bullying is becoming increasingly intolerable. But it has not taken, and likely will not take, any decisive actions to remove the Chinese fishing fleet from its waters. This is because China is still the primary trading partner of many countries in Southeast Asia. They know that if they provoke China, they will be suffer more than it will. Thus the countries in the South China Sea region are in a difficult place. On one hand, they cannot upset China so much that they hurt themselves. On the other hand, they cannot simply stand by as China pushes them out of what they are entitled to under international law. It is likely that, due to the challenging position facing these countries, we will see more and more weeks like this one. We will see more and more weeks with numerous confrontations occurring within only a few short days.

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