This article is part of a series that will be released before the end of 2015, drawing from The Contour‘s annual print issue titled Upheaval, Revolution & Tragedy: The World of 2015, which can be found online at The Contour: Print Edition
This year marks a major turning point in the South China Sea disputes between China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. A tribunal put together by the Permanent Court of Arbitration will likely rule on a case put forth by the Philippines by the end of this year—a decision that could potentially alter the way these countries deal with maritime issues. The conflict represents not only China’s growing power, but its growing volatility and perpetuates the common perception of China as a military threat to all other countries in the region.
The Asian nations have historically been at odds with each other in the Asia-Pacific region over the South China Sea. China’s provocation of the issue, however, is a recent one: a sovereignty dispute over not only territorial waters, but also islands including the Spratlys and the Paracels. The disputed areas, in addition to being militaristically useful for their proximity to other countries, also contain useful trading routes and fishing grounds and are thought to have large reserves of untapped natural resources. In a region with some of the highest population densities in the world, acquisition of such resources wields great economic power, especially for countries like China and the Philippines. In all, at least six different countries have recently laid claims to the region.
Of these countries, China’s actions have been the clearest, as China begins the construction of artificial islands and claims that the region has been its own since ancient times. Its territorial claims are also the largest, defined by the nine-dash line and stretching hundreds of miles southeast from its southern coast into the region. China’s claims are mainly opposed by the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal—an island around 100 miles from the Philippines—and Vietnam over the Paracels and Spratlys. The U.S. has also joined the fray in an attempt to preserve its own interests, not only as the largest military presence in the area, but against China, set to become the world’s next superpower. U.S. actions include sending military destroyers, including the U.S.S. Lassen, to the region. Many fear that rising tensions will lead to open conflict and concessions of sovereignty by smaller nations to China.
The court’s ruling is likely to be one of two outcomes:
- a ruling stating that the court has jurisdiction over the issue and that the nine-dash claim is invalid, or
- a ruling stating that the court holds no jurisdiction over such problems.
The court’s decision holds significance not only for this case, but could set precedent for the future of all such maritime disputes worldwide. If the first ruling occurs, China will be forced to reexamine its political and economic agendas. In the case of the second ruling, it could potentially inflate the situation until a peaceful solution is found.
by Katherine Xiong ’19 | Staff Writer