The situation around the islands in the South China Sea is heated by the fact that the aspiring countries are beginning to expand their military presence in the disputed territories. The main disputed territories are the Spratly Islands (Chinese – Nansha, Vietnamese – Quandao Truong Sa), Paracels (Chinese – Xisha, Vietnamese – Hoangsa) and Scarborough Shoal (Chinese – Huangyang Dao, Phillip .- Panatag). China has considered these territories as its own. China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia all have competing claims to this areas.
The main reasons for the territorial claims of these states are attributable to a number of factors:
- Trade routes.Important navigable waterways, which export energy from the Middle East to the USA and APR, path through the South China Sea. Trade volume through this region amounts $ 5.3 trillion (25% of world trade).
- Oil and gas reserves.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are down on the shelf of the South China Sea.
- Military use. Control over disputed areas of land will give their possessor an advantage in case of regional conflict.
- In the South China Sea, about 8% of the world’s fish and seafood production is caught .
Chinese activities in the South China Sea
The PRC has launched a mass program for construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, where it will be possible to build military bases and airfields . Totally, China has built 7 artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (13 sq.km). There are 2800 m long airstrips and airfields for servicing three squadrons of military aircraft on the three islands . China considers the maritime territories around the artificial islands as its national territorial waters, thereby limiting the possibility of maneuvering other states in the region. In the beginning of 2016, two Chinese civil aircraft landed on the artificial island on Fiery Cross. At the same time, Chinese mass-media called this island “our country’s most southern airport” . In addition, China has made more than 120 tours to the area of the Paracel Islands over the past 4 years. It is planned to increase the number of cruise liners for tours to the South China Sea .
In July 2016, immediately after the Award The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, China conducted military exercises in the southeast of the island province of Hainan . At the end of 2016, the Chinese Navy captured an American underwater drone, which was collecting scientific data .
In May 2017, China installed rocket launchers on a disputed reef in the South China Sea to ward off Vietnamese military combat divers and said that it has the right to “do what it wants on own territory” and these installations are exclusively defensive responses . Furthermore, Beijing responded to the US actions by launching a missile frigate “Luzhou” and a corvette “Jiankai” towards the American destroyer . At the end of May of this year, two Chinese fighters J-10 intercepted the US patrol plane P-3 Orion in the sky over the South China Sea.
The Chinese Ministry of Defense stated that the direction of US military ships and aircraft to the South China Sea region threatens the sovereignty of China, as well as the lives of military personnel in the area .
For today, China has an underwater fleet of 75 submarines, while it additionally builds submarines. For comparison, the United States has 70 ships. However, Beijing is inferior to the US in terms of the number of aircraft carriers: 2 and 10, respectively .
China plans to build an extensive system of underwater observations in disputed areas, which, according to experts, will be used not only for scientific research of the marine environment, but also for the detection of warships and submarines. Beijing is going to allocate 2 billion yuan ($290 million) at establishing this system .
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea. According to this document, the parties concerned are to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations. States directly concerned must act in
accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the
1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and draft a code of conduct in the South China Sea .
In May this year. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China stated that the structure of the Code has been agreed upon, but no details about its content have been voiced . Perhaps, the Code will be presented in November this year at the 31st ASEAN Summit.
Position of Vietnam
In May 2017, Vietnam tried to drill oil wells around the Spratly Islands, which caused China’s irritation. In addition, in early June of this year. Vietnam and Japan conducted joint exercises simulating the operation to catch illegal fishing vessels in the South China Sea .
Vietnam is trying to vouch for the support of external forces, and at the same time is strengthening its naval capabilities. In May of this year. Vietnam received from the US a large patrol ship Morgenthau (WHEC 722) free charge and renamed it CSB 8020 .
For Vietnam, this was the largest US military supply – a total displacement of 3,250 tons, a length of 115 meters. May 22, Vietnamese also received 6 small high-speed patrol boats of the type Metal Shark 45 Defiant . In addition, Russia supplied Vietnam with 6 submarines. According to the contract, the Russian side undertook to train the Vietnamese crew . Vietnam is trying to expand its position in the disputed areas replenishing the Navy’s submarines.
Noticeably, for Vietnam and other countries, the acquisition of submarines is becoming a priority. While submarines can prevent any real clashes, the surface fleet is more vulnerable, and does not pose a serious threat to the neighbors in the current proliferation of naval weapons.
At the same time, Vietnam does not want to aggravate the situation around the disputed islands. In May 2017, Beijing and Hanoi agreed on ways to resolve disputes over the South China Sea. The parties pledged to discuss temporary solutions that will not affect the position of each party. Also, the parties agreed to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea and strive for the early signing of a code of conduct in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam also agreed to avoid actions that could complicate the situation and lead to increased tension .
Position of Malaysia
Malaysia has claims to the six islands of the southern part of the Spratly Archipelago. Malaysia’s position was not clear earlier unless in 2014 Malaysia made it clear that it was concerned about the actions of China, whose military patrolled around the James Shoal (43 miles from the state of Sarawak). Also, the Chinese coast guard drove off the Malaysian fishermen from shallow waters around the Lukonia reef. In response, Malaysian naval and maritime enforcement vessels increased the patrol rate to 345 days and extended the range to 200 nautical miles from shore .
Malaysian Minister of Defence Hishammuddin Hussein met with Australian Defense Minister Maris Peyn to ensure efforts are made to “hold China to their promise of not placing military assets in the area”. Minister Hishammuddin calls on the ASEAN countries “to maintain balance, and to curb the actions by superpowers, whether it is China or the United States” .
In addition, Malaysia urged the ASEAN countries to start joint patrolling of airspace to counter terrorists. On June 19 of this year, Malaysia and the Philippines began the maritime patrolling of the region .
Position of the Philippines
In 2009, the Philippines passed Act No. 9522, in which Scarborough Shoal was designated as the national territory of the Philippines .
China established de facto control over the Scarborough Shoal and other islands in 2012, following the Philippines suit to The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The Philippines marked 15 statements in the lawsuit, pointing to the illegal construction of China’s artificial islands, as well as violations of certain provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea .
Despite the fact that China did not participate in the trials, on July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague partially satisfied the petitions of the Philippines and recognized the illegality of China’s actions . The judges found it illegal China’s using natural resources, fishing and other economic activities. In addition, China’s infrastructure projects inflicted irreparable damage to the coral reefs in the region . China did not recognize (and did not accept) the Arbitration Court rulings and enlisted support of several countries, such as Cambodia, Angola, Liberia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Senegal .
Relations between China and the Philippines have changed markedly since the election of the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. Recall that the suit in the Hague court filed his predecessor Benigno Aquino. After his election, Duterte visited Beijing. At the end of the visit, China promised to provide $ 24 billion in soft loans and investments for projects in the energy, mining, ports and railroads .
It is interesting that Duterte did not mention the decision of the Arbitration Court in The Hague.
For today, Beijing stopped repelling Filipino boats and allowed to fish, both Chinese and Philippine ones. Despite the decision of the arbitration court, China continues to develop and establish its own rules in the area. According to Filipino fishermen, the positive side of the presence of the Chinese Coast Guard is that they drive away other people’s boats, otherwise fishermen of other countries would appear there .
At the same time, in May of this year, The Philippines sent troops to the disputed island of Titus (Pag-asa), not far from the place where China builds military facilities. R. Duterte was going to personally visit these islands, but due to Beijing’s concern he canceled the trip, although he gave a hint that he did not give up this idea .
Manila abruptly resumed construction of coastal facilities and repair the runway at Titus (Pag-asa) Island. The project is expected to cost a total of 1.6 billion pesos .
In April of this year, it became known that the Philippines are going to start the purchasing submarines in the next 11 years, and in May of this year, Myanmar showed the interest in buying two submarines .
Despite some rapprochement with the PRC and the harsh statements of President R.Duterte against the USA, Manila does not hurry to break off ties with Washington. R. Duterte builds relations with China, at the same time the Foreign Minister of the Philippines Enrique Manalo – with the US, while he condemns China’s actions in the South China Sea. Thus, Manila is balancing between Beijing and Washington .
US position on the situation in the South China Sea
China’s active actions in the South China Sea have drawn strong criticism from the United States and Europe, who accuse Beijing of illegitimately militarizing the region and altering the geography of the region. Despite this, China claims that all these facilities are designed primarily for civilian purposes and to boost safety for fishing and maritime trade .
Washington has not own territorial claims, but it provides active support to its traditional allies in the region. At the same time, President Trump emphasizes that “the United States will continue to fly, swim and operate wherever international law allows” .
The United States has repeatedly shown disagreement with China’s actions in the South China Sea. In particular, in February of this year, The Pentagon sent an aircraft carrier group led by Carl Vinson to the South China Sea .
On May 24, 2017, the American guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke sailed close (12 miles) to the artificial islands built by China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. This was the first such action by the American fleet in the Spratly area since the election of Donald Trump. Prior to this, such patrol activities were conducted fairly regularly. In Washington, this is called “operations to protect freedom of navigation”, and in Beijing – “provocations” .
Furthermore, the participants of the recent summit (May 26-27, 2017, Taormina, Italy) called for the demilitarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea. They said that they oppose any unilateral actions, support the principles of free maritime navigation and international law, and also advocate for peaceful decision-making .
Another indication of the internationalization and aggravation of the regional conflict in the South China Sea is the position of the countries stated at the session of the Shangri-La Dialogue. This forum on ATP security took place in early June of this year in Singapore, where participants showed concern about the actions of China .
Conclusions and generalizations
Firstly, the boosting of China’s military strength in the South China Sea corresponds to the concept of turning the country into a sea power, especially as China demonstrates its increased technical equipment. To secure the disputed territories, China applies both “hard” and “soft power”: on the one hand – the deployment of weapons on disputed islands, on the other – the provision of investment and loans to their opponents.
Secondly, the Philippines and Vietnam are trying to balance between China, the US, Russia, and Japan. They attract Chinese investments, seek financial support from Japan, purchase military equipment from Russia, and also ask the US to provide them with international legal support.
Thirdly, currently, the countries involved in territorial disputes are trying to find consensus on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. At the same time, no country is going to give up its rights to the disputed territories.
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