7th Oct, 2023
A recent dispute between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea turns the spotlight on tensions in the strategic waters with ramifications to all countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including India.
- The present dispute revolves around ‘Scarborough Shoal’ in the South China Sea.
What is the dispute all about?
- The recent dispute came days after Chinese Coast Guard ships placed a 300-metre-long barrier to prevent the entry of boats from the Philippines, the latest in long-running tensions in the South China Sea.
- The South China Sea dispute essentially revolves around multiple claims to the land features — islands and reefs — and associated territorial waters.
- Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), every state “has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles” and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), as many as 70 disputed reefs and islets are under contestation. The AMTI says China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan have built more than 90 outposts on these disputed features.
What is the significance of Shoal?
- The Scarborough Shoal is named after a British ship that was grounded on the atoll nearly three centuries ago.
- It is one of Asia's most contested maritime features and a flashpoint for diplomatic flare-ups over sovereignty and fishing rights.
- Located in the middle of the South China Sea and near shipping lanes carrying an estimated $3.4 trillion of annual commerce, its position is strategic for Beijing.
- Scarborough Shoal is located in the eastern part of the South China Sea.
- It is uninhabited and shaped like an atoll consisting mainly of rocks and barely consists of any land except for very small islands.
- It is located at about 220 kilometers from the Philippines and is located inside the Exclusive Economic zone of the Philippines.
- Its location is much closer to the Philippines’ shore as compared to the China’s shore.
- It is also referred to as ‘Bajo de Masingloc’ and ‘Panatag’ by the Philippines and ‘Huangyan Island’ by China.
- The present name Scarborough was given after an East India company’s ship named ‘Scarborough’ got grounded on one of the rocks in the atoll.
South China Sea and ‘Code of Conduct’:
- Multiple countries, including China and ASEAN members, have disputes over the South China Sea. They've been trying to create a set of rules called a Code of Conduct (CoC) to manage these disputes.
- In 2002, ASEAN and China agreed on a Declaration of Conduct (DoC), which emphasized peaceful dispute resolution according to international law, including the Unied Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
- In 2013, the Philippines initiated arbitration proceedings against China under UNCLOS, claiming China's actions violated the convention.
- In 2016, a tribunal ruled against China's "nine-dash line," which claimed nearly the entire South China Sea.
- The ruling found China's claims inconsistent with UNCLOS and clarified rules about exclusive economic zones and continental shelves around islands and rocks in the sea.
What are concerns of the region from China?
- China asserts extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea, encompassing almost the entire sea, often referred to as the "nine-dash line."
- These claims overlap with the claims of several other countries, including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
- China has undertaken significant military and infrastructure development in the South China Sea, constructing artificial islands and fortifying them with military installations, runways, and missile systems.
- This has raised concerns among neighboring countries and the international community about China's expanding military presence in the region.
- China has been accused of challenging freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by asserting control over certain areas and waters.
- This has led to disputes and tensions with other countries and prompted freedom of navigation operations by the United States and other nations to assert their rights under international law.
- China's actions have sparked concerns about regional stability and the potential for conflict.
Concerns for India ‘as dispute continue’:
- The South China Sea holds the major Oil trade route for countries in the Pacific and India affects if the economy of these counties gets impacted.
- India’s interest in the region:
- India is seen as a vital player in the region, and Southeast Asian countries are keen to partner with India both economically and strategically.
- With India’s maritime discourse expanding and 55% of India’s trade passing through this region, India must pursue its interest in the region.
What about International Conventions?
- China maintainsthat, under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence-gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
- According to the United States, claimant countries, under UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), should have freedom of navigationthrough EEZs in the sea and are not required to notify claimants of military activities.