What’s Happening In The South China Sea Today

China’s Territorial Claims

The South China Sea has become an international flashpoint in recent years due to China’s territorial claims and activities in the region. In 2009, China submitted a map to the United Nations outlining its nine-dash line territorial claims to parts of the South China Sea. This generated opposition from China’s neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. China has asserted the claim, backed by the defensive position that under international law, there can be no dispute over its sovereignty. Beijing has gone on to construct numerous artificial islands and build military facilities on them in an effort to fortify its presence and strengthen its hold over the disputed waters.
The activities of China in the South China sea have caused alarm among the regional states and international actors alike. According to Admiral Philip Davidson, the US Indo-Pacific commander, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States”. China’s coercive activities in the region have also been condemned by the US. In a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Beijing has been accused of using “construction and militarisation in the South China Sea to intimidate its neighbours”.

Military Incursions in the South China Sea

In addition to reclaiming its land in the South China Sea, China has continued to conduct military exercises in the area. Chinese military vessels, including navy and coast guard ships, have repeatedly entered waters around the islands claimed by other countries. Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have competing claims to the region, have seen the greatest number of incursions. For example, in June 2019, Vietnam reported that Chinese ships had been spotted inside their exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, violating international law. China countered by claiming that the ships were there to protect its own territorial interests.
The Chinese navy has also conducted live-fire drills in international waters, and even deployed its aircraft carriers to the region in order to assert its presence and intimidate its neighbours. In February 2019, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army issued a statement outlining its intentions to “enhance its combat readiness for national sovereignty protection and maritime rights”, warning that its neighbouring countries should not “look for trouble”.

The U.S.’ Response

In light of these events, the US has responded by increasing its presence in the South China Sea. Several US warships have been sent to the region to challenge what it views as China’s excessive maritime claims. In July 2020, the US Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the area, sailing within what it argued were international waters in order to assert the right of free passage in the crucial waterway. The move was countered by Chinese warships, who shadowed the American vessels and ‘challenged’ their presence in the sea.
In addition to sending warships to the region, the US has also increased its diplomatic presence in the South China Sea. It has regularly spoken out against China’s activities in the area, and built strategic partnerships with other countries who face similar threats. This includes increasing military cooperation and providing military aid to countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Regional Responses to China’s Actions

Various countries around the South China Sea have looked to counter China’s claims to the region. Vietnam and the Philippines have both taken measures to strengthen their presence in the region, building up their own military forces and bolstering bilateral agreements.
In addition, countries in the region have looked to international organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for support in addressing their territorial dispute with China. While ASEAN countries have failed to come to a unanimous consensus on how to address the region’s maritime tensions, UNCLOS remains the preferred arbiter when it comes to settling disputes over navigation rights and boundaries in the South China Sea.

The Current Situation

The South China Sea continues to be an area of contention, as China maintains its hold in the region and continues to assert its maritime claims. China has refused to engage in any bilateral talks over the conflict, and continues to ignore international rulings made against its actions. Moreover, recent events suggest that the US and its regional allies have continued to step up their presence in the sea in an effort to deter China’s activities, leading to further confrontation.
As of now, there is no end in sight to the conflict over the South China Sea. With tensions continuing to simmer, many fear that the area could become a flashpoint, leading to further escalation and even all-out war.

The International Community’s Role

The international community has an important role to play in preventing further escalation, particularly through the use of diplomatic tools. China’s regional neighbours have called for increased dialogue and the introduction of measures that can help reduce tensions in the region.
At the same time, countries such as the US and Japan have continued to strengthen their presence in the South China Sea, with the intention of deterring China’s expansionist ambitions. As the conflict intensifies, there is a need for all stakeholders to use diplomatic channels to engage in constructive dialogue and find peaceful solutions to the territorial dispute.

Environmental Damage Caused by Reclamation Projects

The environmental effects of China’s reclamation projects in the South China Sea have been severe. The destruction of coral reefs and the destruction and pollution of the sea’s vital marine life has caused irreparable damage to the ecosystem. This has not only had devastating effects on the marine life in the area, but also on the people who depend on the sea for sustenance, including thousands of fishermen who have lost their livelihoods as a result of China’s actions.
The destruction of coral reefs has also had economic implications. According to a report by the Nature Conservancy and Wild Aid, the destruction of coral reefs in the South China Sea has caused an estimated $130 million worth of damage to coastal communities in the region. The report also highlighted the need for countries in the region to work with China in order to mitigate the damage caused to marine life and coastal communities.

Questions on International Law

The dispute over the South China Sea has also raised questions about the international legal framework governing maritime disputes. China’s expansive maritime claims have been in direct conflict with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes that a country’s territorial claim can only extend up to 12 nautical miles from its baselines.
Some scholars have argued that under international law, China’s claim to the Spratly Islands is invalid. However, China’s assertive actions in the region, combined with its growing military power and economic clout, has enabled it to push its claims effectively. This has prompted some experts to suggest that China’s actions in the region are a sign of its disregard for international law, as well as a demonstration of its growing ability to impose its will on its neighbours.

The Impact of Chinese Fisheries in The South China Sea

The South China Sea is home to an estimated 125 million metric tons of fish, and is one of the most important fishing grounds in the world. China’s presence in the region has enabled it to access some of these valuable stocks. This has caused alarm among other regional states and international entities, as many fear that China’s activities are depleting fish stocks and threatening to push vulnerable species to the brink of extinction.
In response to this, the Philippines has enforced a ban on any fishing boats from leaving its coasts, in an effort to preserve its marine resources against the threat of Chinese overfishing. Other countries have followed suit, and imposed restrictions on Chinese fishing vessels and trawlers operating in the area.
In spite of this, Chinese fishing fleets remain active in the region, and are reportedly catching fish in excess of the limits set by UNCLOS. There is also evidence to suggest that Chinese fishing vessels are operating illegally in waters that are beyond the bounds of Chinese sovereignty. In addition, China has been accused of using its fishing fleets as a cover for its military operations, as Chinese naval ships often accompany the fishing vessels in international waters.

The South China Sea Dispute and Global Politics

The dispute over the South China Sea has had an impact on global politics, with the US and China locked in an escalating geopolitical rivalry. The US has accused China of using its influence in the region to challenge Washington’s global leadership and to undermine US interests in the area. China, in turn, accuses the US of trying to contain its growing influence.
The dispute is also part of a wider regional power struggle between China, the US and its regional allies. The US has been working to strengthen its ties with allies such as Japan, South Korea and India, in an effort to counter China’s growing influence in the region. China’s rivals in the region have also sought to strengthen their own defence capabilities in response to its presence in the South China Sea.
The dispute over the South China Sea has also had an impact on the global economy, with countries such as the US and China increasingly reliant on the sea to transport goods, oil and gas. As a result, the US and other countries have sought to secure their trade routes in the region by conducting freedom of navigation operations and increasing their military presence in the area.

Ferne Chang is an avid sailor with a passion for all things maritime. She has a Master’s degree in Maritime Studies from the University of Liverpool which has enabled her to create a successful career in writing and research about world seas. She currently produces articles for online publications on topics ranging from shipbuilding to maritime law and cruising. Ferne also serves as a consulting editor for various maritime, trade, environment and policy journals. In her spare time, she enjoys sailing and exploring the world’s oceans with her family and friends.

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