Image: Mark Konig (Unsplash)

The South China Sea waters have become a prominent arena of concern in the polarised global economy because of China’s adjudged expansionist schemes that have caught the attention of superpowers, allies and their interests. The maritime territorial dispute between the South East Asian countries that generate between $3.4-$5 billion in international trade per annum appears to, on a surface level be centralised around resource acquisition. Once the blurred lens is adjusted, it is a notable and intricate socio-political and economic dispute that calls for scrutiny on previously accepted demarcations. 

The South China Sea is a vital waterway hub for various activities ranging from trade to aquaculture which the densely populated South-Asian communities are dependent on for its resources and accessibility. The largely biodiverse area provides approximately 10% of the world’s fishing stocks, 40% of global natural gas commerce with over 190 trillion cubic feet present. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the ongoing large-scale extraction and overfishing is exhausting the South China Sea’s once affluent deposits. Each of the states enclosing the sea namely Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam all have 200-mile exclusive zones giving their state authority, over economic pursuits within that range under the 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea). 

This agreement although rectified by the crucial players has several water features and islands that do not fit neatly into clearly defined areas, resulting in overlapping claims such as the elaborately contested Spratly and Paracel islands. The agreement did not explicitly make provisions for extensive security considerations. Raw materials and fishing rights are the most conflicting issues, even in spaces that have specific jurisdictions because contraction projects are often met with severe backlash, especially from Beijing. These discords are likely to intensify because of environmental degradation due to climate change. Which will worsen food insecurity and aggravate mineral and territorial competition as witnessed through the inter-state actions of erecting national emblems in desired areas to emphasis new and agreed-upon claims. 

Since the 1980s China has expressed interest in the maritime waters that surpasses their allocated 200-mile radius and is prioritised through their emerging hegemonic status calling for between 80-90% of the total 3.9 squared kilometeres. Under the assertion that these are ancient Chinese trade channels that were diluted by Western imperialism. China has advocated for the controversial nine-dash-line as a method to enlarge its geopolitical sphere of influence, which would consequently have a domino effect in its standing in the global arena. This is seen in the unoccupied territory hotspots such as the Spratly and Paracel islands on which China have begun to construct numerous artificial inland structures such as; bases to expand their navy and fulfil aquaculture goals. They have already preoccupied 3200 acres of land for their industrial outposts, whilst searching for and extracting rare metals that would give them a considerable and comparative advantage in the 4th Industrial Revolution. 

These military build-ups and missile port developments are brewing tensions in the South China Sea. Those invested in the region because of China’s monopoly on legal naval laws and its encroachment tactics that are difficult for small states to sufficiently challenge even with the backing of a P5 country. China’s diplomatic strategies refute these concerns by merely alluding to the nine-dash-line and stressing vulnerability to foreign aggressive forces in its the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China is believed to be playing both sides of the fence as mediator and conflict instigator in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) code of conduct negotiations. They have exacerbated the disputes rather than contributed to their resolution through their foreign policy ambiguity that they defend in line with the UNCLOS. Even though it criticises China’s coercive control in these maritime waters, its equidistance proposition would not address the needs of the parties involved. Aqua life and raw materials are not distinctively distributed along 50-50% lines placing some countries at a geographical disadvantage.

In recent times, China has exploited the world’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic to broaden its martime strategy by taking pivotal political actions to consolidate maritime intelligence bases. Moreover, not enough attention is paid to the fact that they have undergone several financial aid programmes to improve diplomatic ties with countries like The Philipines. This complicates the nature of the disputes and the mechanisms used to resolve them. It is arguably a part of the greater scheme of things as they aspire to implement an inter-continental belt and road initiative, economically intertwining a vast number of economies with their own country.

The United States of America (USA), despite attempting to take a neutral position in the conflict, has also been a proactive member in its discussions. The USA’s desire to safeguard its interests are ironically weakened by not rectifying UNCLOS. The USA gains over $1.2 trillion annually from this waterway, therefore, aims to maintain unrestricted navigation and free trade. In addition to this, they hope to mitigate disagreements amongst the ASEAN countries through treaties and military assistance because of their international responsibility to facilitate liberal principles and rights. 

Through a structuralist perspective, one can recognise the often overlooked importance of the cultural practices and values that have sustained historical, scientific and knowledge sharing ties that impact a state’s approach to the territorial water conflict. The Malay, for example, prefer a more Nusantara Mandala concept of shared networks and resources which differs from the Chinese definitive boundaries approach. Regardless, ASEAN solidarity and the collective alliance could reshuffle power dynamics as these nations have a joint population of over 625 million people and $3 trillion annual GDP excluding China’s economy. They could bring forth a legally binding framework that is sensitive to the complexity of their problems, for unified cohesive development. Nonetheless, the members of the South China Sea find themselves between a rock and a hard place, because of their unwillingness to end China’s dominance.

In a globalised interdependent economy facing the increasing risk of protectionist policies, the South China Sea conflict is noteworthy as the world’s oceans are slowly becoming the new conflict-prone region. China’s unsettling prospects for the region based on traditional imperial claims will alter the Indo-Pacific merchant zone as they try to link most global value chains to their single economy. Research that is outside the scope of this article, evaluates the in-depth solutions and possible East-West treaties. The oceanic maritime water is a powder keg which Chinese expansionism may ignite.

By Rungano Sibanda

Rungano Sibanda is a final year undergraduate student at the University of Pretoria. She is passionate about highlighting the necessity for diversity whilst challenging the misconception that it breeds conflict in International Relations. 

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