Navigating the South China Sea Dispute: Exploring the complexities of Territorial Claims in the South China Sea

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Whenever individuals discuss territorial disputes, they often associate them with conflicts over a piece of land. However, territorial disputes can also include disputes over water bodies. One such significant and interesting case is the South China Sea, which holds substantial economic value for the surrounding countries. The main parties involved in this conflict are China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, the United States, ASEAN member states (Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia), and other external stakeholders such as Japan, Australia, India, and the European Union. With a land size of around 3.5 million square kilometers, the South China Sea holds significant importance from an ecological and strategic standpoint. However, conflict arises over the rights to the water bodies, which come with substantial benefits. Who owns the South China Sea is a question that depends on whom you ask about its territorial rights.

Acknowledging the Convention on Law of Sea, which states that, every country has the right to claim up to 12 Nautical Miles from its coast as its territory; meanwhile, a country can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending up to 200 NM for economic and trade purposes, but the Chinese government claims to have an exception due to the Nine Dash Line. The Chinese government uses a demarcation line known as the Nine Dash Line to claim territory over a large portion of the South China Sea. It is an imprecise boundary made up of nine dashes, or line segments, that stretch from the Chinese mainland southward and cover a sizable area of the South China Sea. The nine-dash line, which first showed up on Chinese maps in the 1940s, was formally included in China’s territorial claims in 1947. However, there has been disagreement and interpretation regarding the precise meaning and legal foundation of the line. The Nine Dash Line originally the Eleven Dash Line appeared on Chinese maps about 70 years ago, now Beijing uses this historical evidence that China has the right to 90% of contested water, reaching up to 1200 miles from southeast China. This claim overlaps with the claims of several other countries in the region, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Furthermore, in 2016, the International Tribunal voted against China saying that it had no legal basis for its claim, most of the region welcomed the news but China pretty much pretended that the ruling was never passed and kept on building artificial islands and bases. Certain factors constitute a key rationale for its importance. Firstly, $5.3 trillion worth of goods passes through the South China Sea annually, making it a major maritime route that makes up a third of world trade. Second, the South China Sea’s underwater resources, which include copious amounts of oil, natural gas, fisheries, and potential hydrocarbon deposits, contribute to the great economic importance of the neighboring countries. One government-owned business in China claimed that the South China Sea contains closer to 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under its waters than the US, which estimated that the region contains 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In the context of legal arbitration, neighboring states have taken steps to ensure their rights in the South China Sea. However, China’s government has dismissed the majority of these actions, claiming that the entire South China Sea belongs to them, and denying the rights of neighboring states. In 2016, the Philippines complained to China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. This resulted in a significant international legal dispute regarding the South China Sea, known as Philippines v. China. The case contested China’s territorial claims and actions in the South China Sea, including its “nine-dash line” claim, which covers the majority of the area. The Philippines argued that China’s military and island-building actions violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and infringed upon its sovereign rights. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) made a significant decision in favor of the Philippines. The tribunal concluded that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration activities, among other things. The court also stated that China’s claims to historic rights within the “nine-dash line” were not compatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The tribunal clearly defined maritime rights in the region and concluded that certain features, such as rocks or low-tide elevations, do not create continental shelves or exclusive economic zones. China, however, rejected the decision, arguing that it lacked legal standing and that it would not recognize any arbitral award. Nevertheless, the PCA ruling provided support to the claims of neighboring countries in the international system.

The dispute over the South China Sea has far-reaching global implications that go beyond the immediate parties involved. Not only does it affect the states directly involved, but it also has a significant impact on international trade, security, and the value of International Law. The dispute raises important questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of rulings made by international bodies, and whether they hold any real weight in practice. In terms of the areas affected, the South China Sea dispute has a substantial impact on the trade economy, energy security, regional stability, international law and order, alliance and security partnerships, and diplomatic relations. The dispute has created uncertainty and volatility in the region, which has disrupted trade flows, made energy resources more expensive, and led to increased military tensions. Furthermore, the dispute has challenged the very foundations of international law and order, as the parties involved have failed to come to a consensus on how to resolve the issue peacefully and by established legal frameworks. The dispute highlights the need for a more effective and legitimate system of international law and governance, one that can effectively resolve disputes and promote peace and stability in the global community.

China has recently revealed an alleged agreement with the Philippines in 2016 regarding access to South China Sea islands. This has led to escalating tensions in the region. As per the agreement, China allowed limited fishing but restricted military access. However, China has accused the Philippines of violating the agreement. Both former President Duterte and current President Marcos have denied knowledge of the agreement, which aligns them more closely with the US. This situation highlights the broader regional disputes over the South China Sea, with multiple nations contesting China’s claims. The US has reaffirmed its commitment to defend the Philippines amidst escalating tensions

In summary, the South China Sea conflict is a complicated geopolitical problem with broad ramifications for both regional stability and international security. A resolution that promotes peace, collaboration, and conformity to international law is necessary as the several players negotiate the complex web of overlapping territorial claims, maritime rights, and strategic interests. The crux of the matter is that constructive communication and diplomatic efforts between all sides are required to reduce tensions and arrive at agreeable solutions. These answers ought to be based on the ideas of upholding international law, honoring national sovereignty, and resolving conflicts amicably.

Mahrukh Mateen
Mahrukh Mateen
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Mahrukh Mateen is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University. Mahrukh has a keen interest in global politics and international affairs, which has motivated her to enhance her skills in understanding the International system and comprehending it through her thoughts.

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Mahrukh Mateen
Mahrukh Mateen is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University. Mahrukh has a keen interest in global politics and international affairs, which has motivated her to enhance her skills in understanding the International system and comprehending it through her thoughts.

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