By Tim Marshall.
THE WHAT. The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean. It begins at the eastern end of the Malacca Straits and runs across to the Strait of Taiwan. It’s approx 3,600,000 sq kilometres in size with a mean depth of just under 4,000 feet.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and others, have rival claims of sovereignty over different parts of it. There are numerous rocky outposts, sandbanks, and reefs, as well as the Parcels and Spratlys which are island chains. Countries in the region have built islands on some over the past few decades, but China has built more in recent years than the rest put together.
THE WHY. If you control the South China Sea you control a section of one of the worlds great trade routes. Oil tankers from the Middle East pass through enroute to several countries. Dominant control of the sea gives a nation dominance over all the nations in the region.
In addition, it is thought the sea bed contains huge reserves of oil and gas. Building islands allows you to at least try and boost your claims of sovereingty over drilling, and fishing rights, in an ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’, but that is hotly disputed.
THE LAW. As always, the legality of the issue depends on who you ask. Ask Beijing and you will be told China’s sovereignty stretches back to the Han dynasty an then be shown a map from 1947 via which official claims were made.
Ask the Vietnamese and they will point out that China never claimed sovereignty until the 1940’s and that as it ruled the Paracels and Spratlys since the 17th Century – sovereignty is theirs – and all that goes with it.
The United States has been the dominant sea power in the region for a century and wants things to stay that way. Washington DC argues that these are international waters, and that sovereignty should be defined by The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea –UNCLOS.
The Law of the Sea states that no country can claim sovereignty of a reef, or rock, that is submerged at high tide, and, crucially, it adds that this law also applies to islands that have been built on rocks etc, which were previously submerged.
Now What? Now everyone tries to prevent the sort of clash which occurred between Vietnam and China in 1988 which resulted in 2 Vietnamese navy ships being sunk and Vietnam losing at least 60 solders and sailors as Chinese troops fought to take down a Vietnamese flag from a reef.
An even bigger threat is of a confrontation between the US and China. The US will continue to ignore demands by China that Beijing must be told in advance if anyone intends to sail of fly though the disputed areas.
It can do no other. Acceding to the Chinese demands would be a step towards accepting Chinese sovereignty, and would send a signal to allies in the region that the US will back down if confronted. However the Chinese Communist Party also has the issue of not being seen to lose face.
The Japanese, with the nod of approval from the USA, will supply heavy weapons to both the Philippines and Vietnamese navies, and the USA is working closely with the Australian navy in a bid to impress upon the Chinese that despite their growing power, they are not the strongest force in the region.
How all of this is managed is crucial. The stakes are high for all sides, a miscalculation could lead to conflict. This is the backdrop to this weeks visit to the USA by a high-ranking Chinese military officer – See ‘Things We lost In The Mire 18′.