After a formal protest from the Philippines and a decisive warning from the U.S., China has backed down following its recent displays of aggression in the international dispute over sovereignty of the South China Sea. The country, however, maintains that any attempt to challenge its interests are “doomed to fail.”
The latest standoff was an incident on Nov. 16 in which three Chinese Coast Guard ships fired water cannons at two Philippine supply boats in the disputed territory. The clash reportedly occurred in an area leading to the Second Thomas Shoal — part of the Spratly Islands archipelago — where Philippine troops regularly await food drops and other provisions from supply boats.
A contested history
The competing claims over one of the world’s most active maritime regions date back centuries and primarily involves: China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All six territories have asserted rights over parts of the sea, and the overlap of their claims has led to serious conflict.
The region’s most contested area is the so-called nine-dash line,” a Chinese demarcation that overlaps with Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) assertions by the other five claimants. It was originally drawn by the Republic of China (ROC, also known as Taiwan) in 1947 as an 11-dash line before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) revised it in 1952, removing two dashes from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Disputes between three or more claimants in several smaller areas further complicate the issue. These include the Vietnamese coast, the north of Borneo, the west and north of the Philippines’ island of Luzon and the Sabah territories.
Another contested area is the maritime boundary above Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. While Jakarta has no claims to the South China Sea, it has clashed with Beijing over fishing rights in the waters north of the islands, which happen to be at the south of the disputed region.
Most of the region’s history can be characterized by relative peace and quiet. The rush for control began after the end of World War II when ROC forces, defeated by the PRC, retreated to Taiwan and abandoned their occupied stations.
By 1955 and 1956, both governments established permanent presences on key islands. About two decades later, the Philippines became the first to move after news broke that oil lurked beneath the region’s waters.
Claims in the South China Sea. Image via Voice of America
Philippines v. China
Events leading up to the latest standoff between China and the Philippines can be traced back to April 2012, when Manila attempted to arrest Chinese fishing vessels it had spotted in Scarborough Shoal. The area, located 220 kilometers (136.7 miles) off of the island of Luzon, is supposed to sit safely within the Philippines’ EEZ.
As prescribed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state’s EEZ stretches out to 200 nautical miles (nmi) from its coast. China ultimately took over the area after deploying a series of patrol ships that pressured the Philippines to retreat.
In January 2013, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China under Annex VII to the UNCLOS. Beijing, which argued the need to resolve territorial issues first, largely ignored the proceedings and asserted its sovereignty in a series of position papers.
“Chinese activities in the South China Sea date back to over 2,000 years ago. China was the first country to discover, name, explore and exploit the resources of the South China Sea Islands and the first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in December 2014. “From the 1930s to 1940s, Japan illegally seized some parts of the South China Sea Islands during its war of aggression against China. At the end of the Second World War, the Chinese Government resumed exercise of sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands.”
Filipinos protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila ahead of the Hague ruling in July 2016. Image via Inquirer.net
The Hague ruling
A tribunal of arbitrators formed under Annex VII appointed the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) as the registry for the Philippines v. China case. The PCA, located at The Hague in the Netherlands, is a United Nations observer that provides arbitral tribunal services to resolve disputes that involve international agreements between states, organizations and private entities.
The case was closed in July 2016 with the PCA ruling against China: “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line’ are contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the Convention.”
Aside from nullifying China’s claims to its “nine-dash line,” the PCA ruled that Beijing breached Manila’s EEZ and illegally prevented Filipinos from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal. Additionally, the tribunal found that China failed to protect the marine environment when its fishing vessels harvested endangered species at Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and other areas in the Spratly Islands.
Support for Manila
The arbitral award represents not only a legal victory for the Philippines, but for other claimants whose EEZs overlap with China’s “nine-dash line.” China rejected the ruling and argued for the matter to be resolved through bilateral negotiations.
Tensions persist five years later, with the incident at the Second Thomas Shoal being the latest flare-up. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said his department has expressed “outrage, condemnation and protest” to China.
Five countries — Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Japan — have all voiced support for the Philippines and condemned China’s actions in the aftermath of the standoff. The U.S., a staunch ally of Manila, warned China that “an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.”
On Sunday, the European Union (EU) became the latest to side with the Philippines and join the mounting criticism against China. “The European Union reiterates its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region and the international rules-based order,” the EU said in a statement.
No backing down
China has backed down from the area of conflict in the Second Thomas Shoal. Since the incident, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has been in touch with Huang Xilian, China’s envoy to Manila. On Nov. 19, Lorenzana told reporters that “the Chinese will not interfere per my conversation with the Chinese ambassador.” As of Tuesday, Philippine vessels were able to complete resupply missions.
While Manila has been able to move more freely, Beijing still sees the contested area as its own.
“China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are supported by a solid historical and jurisprudential basis,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Nov. 22. “All attempts at challenging China's sovereignty and interests are doomed to fail.”
On Nov. 25, Zhao said that China “demands the Philippine side [to] honor its commitment and remove its illegally grounded vessel.”
That vessel in question is the BRP Sierra Madre, a U.S. Navy ship that was intentionally left in the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty over the area. It was the vessel that received the new supplies.
“That ship has been there since 1999. If there was commitment it would have been removed a long time ago,” Lorenzana told reporters in response to Zhao’s statement.
“We have two documents attesting that we have sovereign rights in our EEZ while they don't, and their claims have no basis,” she added. “China should abide by its international obligations that it is part of.”
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