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South-China Sea conflict escalates as opposition against China grows

The South China Sea conflict, due to the dispute over undecided boundaries, is likely to escalate because of growing opposition by a few South-East Asian nations to China’s increased military activities in the sea and violations of territorial water limits. A few days ago, Vietnam took a strong exception to the military drill by Chinese forces, as they were carried out in the area that overlaps with Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. Last year, the Philippines had confronted China over intrusion in EEZ after domestic pressure demanded retaliation. 

28.03.2022 12:00
Piše: Valerio Fabbri
Ključne besede:   China   South China Sea   Exclusive Economic Zone   Bejing   USA   Vietnam   Spratly Islands

China defies international law as well as foreign interference in the disputed waters, where it claims it has exclusive right to make, apply and execute its own laws, encapsulated by the creation of artificial islands which are later transformed into military bases.

Other countries that share the South China Sea, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Taiwan, feel that China's "hegemonic" actions affect their economic prospects as well as threaten sovereign rights. However, despite being calm so far, some of these countries can now be seen to have upped their ante against China thanks to intervention of major Western powers.

The rising assertiveness of China, which has militarized three of the Spratlys islands in the disputed sea and increased the military build-up, is set to exacerbate the conflict in the region. Political observers and experts feel China intends to take control of the seas within the so called Nine Dash Line – a map declared by Beijing that includes about 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

 

The international tribunal in the Hague in 2016 ruled that the said Line had no legal basis. However, after refusing to accept the ruling, China continued with its activities including the creation of artificial islands. Not only is the South China Sea an important global shipping route, but it also has rich hydrocarbon reserves and other natural resources, notwithstanding the fact that it is crucial for security reasons in the Indo-Pacific.

 

While there are no demarcated, clear-cut maritime borders, small countries often witness incursion of Chinese ships. Smaller South-East Asian countries are no match to China's naval might, and thus often get dominated and attacked by Chinese vessels. In 2020, the Chinese Coast Guard trespassed into Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and sunk its ship, which Hanoi called an attack on its sovereignty. Even the US expressed serious concerns, saying the Chinese actions were unlawful and disadvantageous for small ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. In this perspective, China defies international law as well as foreign interference in the disputed waters, where it claims it has exclusive right to make, apply and execute its own laws, encapsulated by the creation of artificial islands which are later transformed into military bases.

 

After the Hague ruling, China tweaked its South-China Sea policy as it shifted from the Nine Dash Line to less dramatic "Four Sha", a group of four sands archipelagos – Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, the Macclesfield Bank area and Spratly Islands – over which Bejing claims to have historical rights to hold control. No country in the region has dared to confront Chinese vessels until a few years ago, when the US and its allies, more specifically Australia – a major player in Indo-Pacific – have intervened and opened a front against China.

 

There is another important factor: pressure from people to act against China. Thousands of protestors had shouted anti-China slogans in front of the Chinese Consulate in Manila, after Chinese vessels stopped the Filipino ships. This led the Philippines to slam China despite the present government sharing close ties with Beijing. Manila’s Foreign Minister, Teodoro Locsin, said that "the acts of the Chinese coast guard vessels are illegal. China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off". At the same time, Vietnam has asked China not to disturb the peace, security and stability in the South China Sea. "We ask China to respect Vietnam's sovereignty and not take actions to complicate the situation," said Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Le Thi Thu Hang, after the recent Chinese incursion.

 

While Malaysia and Brunei have preferred not to stand up to Chinese dominance more forcefully, other South-China Sea dependent countries have become quite vocal against Bejing in the recent past. Vietnam's opposition to China has become noticeable. Vietnam dared to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the Gac Ma battle, which was fought against the Chinese navy, a clear indication that Chinese activities now will not be tolerated. Should China not rein in its violations, the conflict could soon escalate and aggravate.

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