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Is America’s objection justified?

Is America’s objection justified?
China’s fanatical aggressiveness in building artificial islands in South China Sea has attracted immense criticism. Over the past few months, the United States (US) has strongly objected to the construction and has urged China to not build them. Recently, during a visit to Singapore, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter released a statement: “The United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further <g data-gr-id="99">militarisation</g>, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states”.

But keeping aside the usual China-US standoffs, does China have the right to build artificial islands in the South China Sea? Is it a good neighbour?

The South China Sea region has been highly disputed for many decades. It is supposed to have huge unknown amounts of oil and natural gas. Further, East Asia’s economic growth rates, among the highest in the world, is being accompanied by an increasing demand for energy. Over the next 20 years, oil consumption among developing Asian countries is expected to rise by four per cent annually on average, with about half of this increase coming from China. The rising Asian oil demand needs to be imported from the Middle East and Africa, which can be substantiated by the fact that more than half of world’s crude oil shipments pass through the region and the sea facilitates more than $5 trillion on annual trade. Therefore, given China’s ambition to replace the US as the most dominant nation, control over the region to advance its economic strength is critical, for which oil is the most valuable resource.

China has always claimed the largest share of territory in the South China Sea region, asserting its rights based on a <g data-gr-id="87">nine-dash</g> line it drew in 1947 and submitted to the United Nations. 
 
The <g data-gr-id="105">nine-dash</g> line was originally an eleven-dash line first shown on a map published by the Republic of China in December 1947 to justify its claims in the South China Sea. Post the annexation by Communist Party of China, and formation of People’s Republic of China in 1949, the line was inherited and revised to nine. <g data-gr-id="106">Inspite</g> of putting forward the line theory, China has never bothered to either explain or clarify their rights within the line region. Vietnam, Philippines and US have trashed the line’s theory and have termed it against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The South China Sea primarily consists of four island groups, which are disputed. First, Spratly Islands is a group of numerous reefs, atolls and islands in the South China Sea. This is the location where China is creating its own artificial base which has been objected to by the US. These islands, however, have been disputed for a long time. Various countries including China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have staked claim to it by claiming historical sovereignty by establishing their military outposts in the region. Unexplored oil and natural gas reserves, immense potential for commercial fishing and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world are the major reasons for the conflict. 

Second, Paracel Islands, called Xisha Islands in Chinese, is another disputed archipelago in the South China Sea. There has been a historical battle for the islands between China and Vietnam based on exclusive economic zone and continental shelf zones. Both countries fought a war in 1974, and China captured the islands, which led to a protest by Vietnam to the United Nations. But China, by the virtue of having its veto power in the UN Security Council, blocked any efforts to bring it up. In July <g data-gr-id="103">2012</g> China formally created Sansha city, an administrative body with its headquarters in the Paracel which it says <g data-gr-id="92">oversees</g> Chinese territory in the South China Sea. Thirdly, Pratas Islands which is disputed between China and Taiwan. It serves as an outpost for the Taiwanese coast guard, guarding the southern entry point to the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and mainland China as well as the western entry to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. It also has an airport, military post, hospital, library, temple and barracks.

And lastly, Scarborough Shoal located near Macclesfield Bank (a completely submerged atoll of reefs and shoals which China tried to place under its administration). The tensions between China and Philippines in the shoal started in 2012 when the Philippine Navy apprehended some Chinese fishing vessels in the shoal. Ever since, relations between the two countries have strained. Most Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines due to the standoff over the Scarborough shoal. 

Despite various meetings and much diplomacy, China’s rising aggressiveness in the South China Sea is an attempt to establish the Chinese domination in the region. Being the most dominant military and economic power, US has always meddled with international affairs of other countries. It has contributed immensely to enable Asia become an engine of economic growth. Their military presence in the region has kept the possibility of <g data-gr-id="98">large scale</g> conflicts at bay. But China’s condescending attitude in ignoring its neighbours’ interests and concerns, in addition to their insecurities about US encouraging Japan, Vietnam and Philippines to lead the ASEAN countries to become more dependent on it, might push the region into a conflict zone.

Further, Pentagon’s growing insecurities about losing the dominant status to China’s rapidly rising economy and strength might worsen the situation.

In April 2013, during the ASEAN ministers meeting in Brunei, there were proposals to pursue a dialogue and formulate a legally binding agreement with China on a code of conduct in the South China Sea. The agreement also sought to replace a 10-year pledge by the claimants not to cause conflict, known as the Declaration of Conduct, but not much transpired.

But the South China Sea issue is not the only dispute China has. It has been at disagreement with almost every neighbouring country. Throughout its history, it has attempted to annex territories by either making encroachments or fighting battles. It has a dispute with India over the Line of Actual Control in Jammu & Kashmir and McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh, Senkaku and Diaoyudao Islands’ dispute with Japan in the East China Sea and regular encroachments and territorial claims on its border with Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. Clearly, China’s hunger for power is perfidious.  

Even Vietnam, which has a $60 billion trade relationship with China and was supported by it during its war with the US many years back, has taken a strong stand against China’s territorial claims. This week, Vietnam launched an $<g data-gr-id="229">800 holiday</g> package to the Spratly Islands, where tourists will be able to see the archipelago and enjoy night fishing and local food. It is being seen as a move to counter China’s claims Give China’s stubbornness and rising ego, most of its territorial disputes including the South China Sea will remain unresolved for several areas. But if China moves beyond building artificial islands to aggressively station and expand their military presence, then East Asia, which is relatively peaceful as compared to other regions across the world, might plunge into a bitter war like situation.
Devanik Saha

Devanik Saha

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