THE NEXT OIL WAR - 3
The Philippines has confirmed that it will meet the United States' appeals to resolve the South China Sea dispute. Following a regional security conference organized at Kuala Lampur, Albert del Rosario, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, stated that, "As a means of de-escalating tensions in the region, the Philippines fully supports and will pro-actively promote the call of the United States on the 'three halts'- a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions."
The Foreign Affairs Secretary was quick to add that the Philippines would only observe these commitments if other claimants in the South China Sea dispute, including China, agree to do the same.
The South China Sea Issue
The South China Sea issue is one of the most compelling examples of maritime geopolitical disputes in the modern day, with several nation-states laying claim over the sea. The claimants include Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Spratly Islands- at the heart of the dispute- are a collection of 750 islands, reefs, cays and atolls in the South China Sea. The region is rich in extensive natural gas and oil reserves and is recognized for the fishing opportunities it offers. The islands enjoy a strategic location in Northeast Asia's most prominent maritime commerce routes; the waterway facilitates international sea-borne trade worth $5 trillion every year.
It is widely acknowledged that authority over the islands will allow the controlling party unprecedented clout over any and all maritime activity in the region. As such, whoever controls the South China Sea will enjoy a monopoly over resources, commerce, military influence and geopolitical power in the region.
Tensions came to a head in 2014 when China began construction artificial islands in the sea. China has staked a claim over 3000 acres in the region, over the course of the last one-and-a-half years. The figure far outstrips the comparatively paltry 100 acres that have been reclaimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam spread over four decades.
U.S. Concerns Over South China Sea 'Militarization'
The United States remains opposed to the South China Sea island building project over the threat it poses to peace and security in the region. The South China Sea has become a severely disputed region, with numerous claimants, and the United States is concerned that any move to further these declarations will escalate hostilities.
Even as the primary players continue to debate the economic and trade repercussions of China establishing control over the entire sea, Washington's reservations are rooted along security and military lines. The construction of military structures on the islands creates a severe threat to stability in the region- an issue that has become a priority matter ever since the proposed use of the South Johnson Reef as a Chinese air base has come to light. Both the United States and Japan have formally expressed reservations over the possibility of China establishing maritime monopoly in the region.
U.S. Calls For 'Three Halts'
In a bid to stabilize the situation and prevent the militarization of what is primarily a political and diplomatic conflict as yet, the United States has called for all the disputants in the South China Sea issue to observe 'three halts':
- The stoppage of building infrastructure and islands in the sea.
- A stop to repossessing and reoccupying different islands in the sea.
- Desisting from any provocative action that carries the potential to exacerbate the conflict.
Washington is committed to helping all the involved actors contain the conflict and solve the same through diplomatic channels.
The Chinese Position
Beijing maintains that China's activities in the South China Sea fall within the purview of the country's sovereign territorial rights. Asked to comment on the issue in March 2015, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said, "China's normal construction activities on our own islands and in our own waters are lawful, reasonable and justifiable".
In the months since, China has offered greater insight into its actions in the region, claiming that the work on the islands was aimed at improving the livings conditions of those already inhabiting the islands. In a statement in April 2015, Ms. Chunying asserted that China has worked on the garrisons on the islands with a view to "Optimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China's international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas."
By way of these explanations, Beijing has sought to establish its historical claim to the islands, stressing the existence of its structures and properties in the region prior to the dispute becoming an international issue. Beijing has also emphasized its intention to use the islands for public benefit, advancement and security.
In the time since, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at the recent bilateral talks, has shared that the general situation in the region is stable and that China is ready to work with all the concerned parties vis-a-vis regional peace and stability. Wang has asked that the dispute be resolved peacefully through negotiations and consultations.
International Law And Island Building
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries must abide by the maritime jurisdiction awarded to them as per international law and recognise the rights of other countries over their portions of the world's oceans. As such, countries cannot lay claims to the islands, marine life, natural resources and trade activities in the waters belonging to another country. The convention also stipulates that submerged entities that cannot sustain human habitation or economic activities will not be recognized as exclusive economic zones. This means that even if China were to establish its claim on the Spratly Islands, it would still control only 12 nautical miles of territorial waters without any exclusive economic privileges over at the same.
Other states in the region have recognized a catch in the aforementioned law: if any of the submerged entities are converted into islands capable of and characterized by human habitation, the UNCLOS stipulations would cease to apply. This realization has served as the primary driving force for the other states' opposition to China's construction of manmade islands on submerged bodies in the South China Sea.
The Chinese constructions are also in direct violation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. As per the treaty, the signees are to desist from engaging in any actions that carry the potential to escalate tensions amongst them. The agreement parties, of which China is one, have also vowed to refrain from inhabiting any uninhabited islands. As per international law experts, the creation of new islands is in contravention of this law. South Johnson Reef is known to house numerous buildings, including a maritime observation center and is rumored to be in the process of being militarized (for an airstrip). Philippines and Taiwan already have airstrips in the Thitu and Taiping islands respectively.
Kerry Calls For Ending Dispute
In a bilateral meeting held on the 5th of August, 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the U.S. Secretary of the State, John Kerry, urged China to halt its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea.
Drawing attention to the need to find a solution to the territorial conflict via peaceful channels in keeping with international law, Mr. Kerry said that, "We want to ensure the security of critical sea lanes and fishing grounds, and we want to see that disputes in the area are managed peacefully and on the basis of international law."
While the United States is keen to find a solution to the South China Sea issue, China has maintained that the issue should be resolved internally between the concerned parties, without any external involvement and influence.
China Halts Construction
In the most recent development to the South China Sea case, China has announced that it has halted island construction. As per a statement made by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Beijing has agreed to halt land reclamation in the sea and called for talks on how all the claimant states should conduct themselves in the disputed water body.
The minister clarified that while new reclamation and construction projects would not be undertaken, Beijing intends to continue its projects on the territories it has already claimed. In keeping with efforts to diffuse tensions and stabilize political ties in the region, China has assured its neighbors that it will not interfere with either the maritime or the over-flight activities of other states in the region.
Whether China will continue observing the halt on a long-term basis will only be established with time; for now, authorities are hoping it will alleviate Sino-U.S. tensions and keep regional hostilities over the South China Sea issue from mounting.
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