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Editorial Today – South China Sea dispute: Explained


China has been trying to assert its ambiguous territorial claims over South China Sea since years by building up its navy and constructing artificial islands.

People’s Republic of China claims Nine-dash line area, which covers most of the South China sea and overlaps exclusive economic zone claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China has not specified the exact meaning of the nine-dash line. It is not clear, for example, whether the country claims everything within the line as its sovereign possession or merely the islands and their surrounding waters

China claims it has historical rights in the South China Sea.

China also says the country also has ancestral fishing rights.

Claims of other countries

  • Vietnam hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s.
  • Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century.
  • Philippines invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping.
  • In May 2014, China established an oil rig near the Paracel Islands, leading to multiple incidents between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.
  • The oil rig dispute has coincided with further tensions between China and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands.

Importance of South China Sea

  • About a third of world trade passes through its sea lanes, including most of China’s oil imports.
  • It contains large reserves of oil and gas.
  • South China Sea also contains rich fishing grounds.
  • Control of the South China Sea would allow China to dominate a major trade route.

south china sea

Disputes in South china sea

  • UNCLOS has been signed and ratified by nearly all the coastal countries in the South China Sea.
  • But territorial disputes still persist, primarily over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as the Scarborough Shoal.
  • Spratlys has been occupied by saveral claimants, which consist of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia.
  • The Paracel Islands are the subject of overlapping claims from China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
  • In 1974 South Vietnamese troops were driven from the Paracels by Chinese forces.
  • A further clash between Vietnamese and Chinese forces occurred in 1988.
  • Another major dispute is over the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA):-

  • This case was brought by the Philippines in 2013, after China grabbed control of a reef, called Scarborough Shoal, about 220 miles (350km) north-west of Manila.
  • PCA has declared China’s “historic claims” in the South China Sea invalid.
  • It is a place of multiple overlapping maritime claims and a growing military presence.
  • China’s island building activities and conduct in the Mischief Reef — not the Second Thomas Shoal — constitute a violation of its obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • China has a positive obligation not to impede Filipino fishing vessels from exercising their EEZ rights, and to prevent Chinese fishermen from exploiting the same resources.
  • Court ruled that only claims consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were valid.
  • Under UNCLOS, which came into force in 1982 and which China ratified in 1996, maritime rights derive from land, not history and there was “no legal basis” for China to claim historic rights within it.
  • Countries may claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles (370km) off their coasts, or around islands. Based on this, the tribunal ruled that the nine-dash line had no standing.
  • Court ruled that claims of China had been building on rocks that were visible only at low tide, and hence not eligible to claim territorial waters and China had violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines, which has an EEZ covering them.

China’s stand and possible steps post-ruling?

China has refused to take part in the proceedings of court and court’s proceedings and has denied accepting, recognising or executing the verdict.

Although as a member of UNCLOS it is supposed to obey the court, but there is no enforcement mechanism.

China has repeatedly attacked the credibility of the PCA and the arbitration process, and will likely continue to do so.

China has attempted to create a coalition of states that rejects the arbitration proceedings, and may continue this effort.

China could continue its land reclamation and construction efforts in the Spratly Islands, which have added over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features Beijing occupies.

China has already threatened to establish an Aircraft Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

Could China be forced to accept?

In global governance, the supreme executive body is the U.N. Security Council, and China holds veto power as a permanent member.

Even the Security Council must rely on member states to enforce its decisions, including binding measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Similarly, the PCA ruling will have to be enforced by members of the international community.

Thus enforcement powers is lacking with PCA’s decision, biggest benefit it provides is a fresh opportunity for diplomacy in the South China Sea and ensures that any action in the region will be subject to the strict scrutiny of a global audience.

Why does it matter to India?

After PCA ruling against Chinese claims over South China Sea, Indian naval warships can now move through the region under UNCLOS without informing the Chinese.

The Chinese, by claiming 80 per cent of South China Sea, have been asking India to notify Beijing of movement of Indian warships through those shipping lanes.

India, like China, is a signatory to the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas) that mandates a certain maritime behaviour and norms.

In 2014, India had accepted an unfavourable ruling versus Bangladesh, in the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Now India is closely looking that what would be the course of action of China in the similar situation, non-compliance may bring the stature of PCA down in the eyes of other countries, including India.


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