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Posted on Beijing Bulletin – Sunday 21st May, 2017
The South China Sea, that includes some of the world’s most important sea routes with about $5 trillion in trade passing through the region annually – China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have competing territorial claims in the waters.
The South China Sea is mostly empty – although it houses hundreds of the small islands, islets and rocks; they are not fit for human settlement.
Why then, have nearly every country surrounding the Sea lay some claim to it?
Scientists have said that the seabed could hold 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and minerals – a boon for resource-hungry Asia.
However, what is of key value is the sea’s strategic location.
Shipping lanes that amount to major arteries of the world trade system pass through it, transporting everything from raw materials to copious amounts of oil.
History of the dispute
The territorial dispute over the South China Sea did not blossom overnight.
In the year 1947, China drew out an imaginary U-shaped line made of nine dashes, accepted by the Communist Party, covering the area that it laid claims to in the South China Sea – which means nearly the entire South China Sea was demarcated.
However, in 1994, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the Philippines has taken China to arbitration, was put into effect after being ratified by 60 countries, including China in 1996.
The agreement, till today, defines territorial waters, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones.
In 1995, China began to slowly snake its tendrils around the disputed Mischief Reef, which prompted Philippines to lodge its first complaint against Beijing through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Taking matters legally into its own hands, China submitted its nine-dash line proposal to the United Nations in 2009, stating it “has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.”
The move came just as Vietnam and Malaysia sought to ratify their own extensions of continental shelves.
Then after a tense standoff, China took effective control of Scarborough Shoal, prompting the Philippines to lodge a formal complaint at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s claims.
In December 2014, China said in a position paper that the panel appointed to solve the dispute did not have jurisdiction over the case as it concerned topics such as sovereignty and boundary definition which were not covered by the UN convention.
After a heated hearing of the claims in November 2015, in which China did not participate, on July 12, 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China has no legal basis for claiming much of the South China Sea.
However, the verdict does not have military backing, as United Nations troops will not be forcing China off Fiery Cross or Mischief Reef, even though the Philippines could choose to go back to the Court and ask for other, stricter measures against China.
A historic end to a decade long war, or was it?
Asian superpower China has regarded the sea as its own backyard and last year, the tribunal at The Hague overruled China’s claim of more than its fair share of the South China Sea.
The tribunal ruled that China has no legal basis for claiming nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea as it has done, in an overwhelmingly clean sweep for the Philippines and finalising of Beijing’s loss of a crucial international case.
The international tribunal added that China’s claims on rocky outcrops, some of which are low-tide elevations exposed only at low tide, cannot be classified under territorial claims.
China was asked to scale back military expansion in the area, on grounds that the Philippines’ sovereign rights have been breached, effectively perforating China’s almost omnipresent “nine-dash” line demarcating its claimed areas in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s expansion, large-scale land reclamation and artificial island construction were said to have upset the ecology due to the rampant destruction of the marine environment and “permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”
Philippines called the ruling a “milestone” while China erupted in anger over the announcement that a large area of the water body is to be classified as either neutral waters or economic zones of other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Philippine President, who took office in June, brought a less confrontational approach to relations with China – especially the decade long dispute over the resource-rich waters.
He repaired fractured ties with China, touting the economic benefits including $24 billion of loans and investment.
Now, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has revealed that China had threatened to go to war after he asserted the Southeast Asian nation’s sovereignty over disputed territory.
Duterte said that during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte said he will drill for oil in the South China Sea, citing the international arbitration tribunal ruling that upheld the Philippines’ claim.
He said, “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is, I can drill the oil if there is some inside the bowels of the earth because it is ours.”
Duterte said that his statement prompted a strong retort from Jinping, who reportedly told the Philippine President, “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force this, we’ll be forced to tell you the truth. We will go to war. We will fight you.”
Speaking in the southern city of Davao, Duterte said, China’s claim is “far away,” recalling what he told Jinping.
He said, “It’s almost alien to us to hear those words because we were never under Chinese jurisdiction.”