Much has been written about how China is unilaterally changing the status quo in the South China Sea as it falsely claims to own almost the entire sea. The other claimants of the South China Sea appeared to be scared of China’s military prowess as China continued to bully the “smaller” countries. However, in a significant development, ASEAN leaders have cited the 1982 UN oceans treaty which they claim should be used to ascertain sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea.
It is perhaps for the first time have the ASEAN countries issued such strong remarks which challenge China’s claims on the disputed South China Sea. In a strongly-worded statement issued by the ASEAN Chair, Vietnam on the behalf of the 10-country bloc said, “We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.”
The statement further reads, “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”.
As ASEAN Chair, Vietnam introduces some important new language smacking down China's claim to "historic rights," with the implicit backing of the rest of ASEAN: "UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within
which ALL activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out." https://t.co/HcE11ijdH7
— Greg Poling (@GregPoling) June 27, 2020
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a 1982 international agreement that defines the rights of the countries to the world’s oceans as the law clearly demarcates stretches of water. The treaty has been ratified by almost the entire world including China.
The UNCLOS was signed to protect the maritime resources and as is a completely binding law of the sea. It provides full money rights to the countries for a 200-mile zone by their shoreline which is regarded to be Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
UNCLOS sets the limit to various areas and clearly demarcates them into the following:
Internal waters which covers all water and waterways on the landward side of the baseline with the coastal state being free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource.
Territorial waters which states that up to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) from the baseline, the coastal state is free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource it deems fit.
Archipelagic waters which states that the coastal country has sovereignty over these waters just like internal waters, however, subject to existing rights including traditional fishing rights of immediately adjacent state
Contiguous zone states that belong the 12 nautical mile limit, there is a further 12 nautical miles from the baseline limit in which a state can continue to enforce laws in four specific areas: customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution.
Exclusive Economic zones extend 200 nautical miles from the baseline within which, the coastal nation has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources.
The South China Sea has emerged as a major bone of contention as China’s blind expansionist policy imperils the stability of the entire region. A part of the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea covers an area of around 3,500,000 square kilometres and is of great strategic importance as apart from lucrative fisheries, huge oil and gas reserves are believed to lie beneath its seabed.
Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei and Singapore have all staked varied claims on the South China Sea based on their coastlines.
But China, through its “Nine-Dash line” principle falsely claims to own almost the entire sea based on “historical grounds”. Its nine-dash line threatens the sovereignty of the rest of the claimants and likes to bully them into agreeing to the nine-dash line claim as China claims all the territories that fall under the nine-dash line claim.
In 2013, the Philippines challenged China’s claim by initiating arbitration proceedings. Three years later, the Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that China has no evidence which showed that it had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources and hence there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the nine-dash line.
The tribunal had also criticised China for its constructions of artificial islands in the strategically important Spratly Islands where apart from severely harming the coral reef environment, it is now militarising the islands and also gaming the UNCLOS. China by constructing artificial islands is expanding its territory in the South China Sea and in turn, the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone under the UNCLOS.
Unsurprisingly, China has rejected the International Court ruling and continues to make a mockery of the verdict. The South China Sea is of great importance for not just the ASEAN countries, but also the world. An estimated, $3 trillion worth of trade is dependent on the South China Sea as one-third of the world’s shipping passes through it. The sea has an abundance of fisheries and is responsible for the food security of millions in South East Asia, especially the countries situated near the Mekong Basin.
The South China Sea is the second most important sea lane in the world with over 10 million barrels of crude oil are shipped every day through the Strait of Malacca. The region has oil reserves of around 11 billion barrels with natural gas reserves are estimated to be around 7,500 km³. Hence, it is important for the world that China doesn’t gain hegemony over the South China Sea.
China apart from drilling in disputed waters claimed by other countries is regularly bullying other claimants. Recently, Beijing ordered that it would prohibit fishing activities in the disputed waters which China has claimed above the 12th parallel in a bid to conserve stocks. The move has invited fierce criticism from the rival claimants as the nations heavily rely on fishing for feeding their population. The ban will run till August 16 with China threatening to take “strictest measures” against any “illegal fishing activities”.
Vietnam has already rejected China’s bizarre decision as its foreign minister said in a statement, “Vietnam asks China not to further complicate the situation in the South China Sea.” The move has also backfired in the Philippines as the chairman of the National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organisations Fernando Hicap said, “The Philippine government should not waste time and wait for Chinese maritime officers to arrest our fishermen. They have no right and moral ascendancy to declare a fishing ban in the guise of conserving fish stocks in marine waters that they have no legal claim, and they have massively destroyed through reclamation activities.”
Beijing has also gone ahead with the renaming of 80 geographical features in the South China Sea – standard names for 25 islands and reefs, and 55 geographic locations in a move that reeks of China’s clear attempts to establish its territorial sovereignty upon the disputed geographic sites. Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese research ship was found conducting a survey close to an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas, recently.
China also rammed a Vietnamese ship days after Hanoi protested against China’s actions in the South China Sea and Chinese jets approaching the tiny island of Taiwan, show that Beijing is trying to collide with other stakeholders in maritime regions.
Following China’s constant confrontation with the other claimants, the US has deployed two American naval warships – USS America and USS Bunker Hill in the South China Sea. The United Kingdom and Australia are also increasing their presence in the disputed waters and are carrying out free navigation exercises so as to counter any Chinese aggression in the sea.
It seems that after the China-made pandemic, border aggression with India, now, the ASEAN nations are standing up to China and openly challenging the country’s expansionist policy which heralds a new dawn and will further increase the international pressure on China.