Tension In The South China Sea Explained by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist
Claims on the South China Sea, the recent ruling, and why China is ignoring it
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Tension in the South China Sea reached a potential inflection point this week.
Days ago, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, dismissing China’s sweeping territorial claims to the hotly contested waters in the South China Sea.
Since then, it has become clear that China plans to ignore the ruling, while Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has threatened to declare an air defense identification zone over the waters to help protect the country’s interests.
But how did we get to this point? How was this ruling determined, and what does it mean moving forwards?
Why the South China Sea matters
The South China Sea is home to 250 small islands, shoals, reefs, sandbars, and other tiny landmasses.
The South China Sea is the second most used sea lane in the world, and home to:
- $5 trillion of annual trade
- 11 billion barrels of oil
- 266 trillion cubic ft of natural gas
Six countries claim parts of the South China Sea as their own: China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
However, China has the boldest claim, insisting that over 80% of the sea is their territory based on historical maps.
Island or Rock?
The ruling in the Philippines vs. China hearing is based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994. All countries disputing claims in the South China Sea are signatories.
UNCLOS defines three types of landmasses, and whether something is a “rock” or an “island” has huge implications for territorial claims.
- Low-tide elevation: A landmass above water only at low tide.
- Rock: A landmass permanently above water, but unable to sustain human habitation or economic life on its own.
- Island: A landmass permanently above water that can sustain human habitation and economic life on its own.
Rocks get some territorial benefits, but islands get 200 nautical miles (370 km) of special economic rights around them in each direction.
- Low-tide elevation: Not entitled to any separate maritime zone.
- Rock: Entitled to territorial sea and contiguous zone. Each are up to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from base line.
- Island: Entitled to territorial sea and contiguous zone, but also entitled to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km), and continental shelf rights.
The economic zone confers rights for fishing, drilling, energy production, and other economic activities.
The tribunal ruled that Scarborough Shoal, along with areas occupied by China in the Spratly Islands do not count as “islands”, and therefore do not justify 200 nautical mile (370 km) economic zones around them.
China has rejected the ruling calling it “ill-founded”. Taiwan, which has administered Taiping Island since 1956, also rejected the ruling.
China has argued that the tribunal has no legitimate jurisdiction on this issue since it concerns “sovereignty” – which the text of the UNCLOS explicitly prohibits tribunals from addressing.
What are the consequences?
If China continues to ignore the ruling, likely there will be a “hit” to China’s reputation, but that’s it.
Going back in history, there is a long list of situations where superpowers have ignored international rulings. It is also worth noting that China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and has veto power.
Tension will continue to increase in the South China Sea, creating a situation that could boil over at any time.
Tension In The South China Sea Explained