Dragon-elephant relationship in the South China sea imbroglio.

Author:Roy, Nalanda
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Essay

"In every element of conflict there is always an opportunity for cooperation." Hasjim Djalal


Southeast Asia has been the focus for scholars for a long time and its importance tends to grow not just politically and economically but also militarily. However, mistrust, and competing maritime claims have combined to weaken a successful regional-security structure. Southeast Asian countries will have to be competent not just in sustaining economic growth and addressing environmental issues, but they must keep up with increasing energy demand and manage potential conflicts in the South China Sea (hereinafter SCS) region. This working paper will not only survey the significance of the South China Sea in terms of its strategic location, oil resources, economic and marine biological diversity; but will also review competing over-lapping claims to the sea area by different countries, potential territorial disputes among the countries, and finally analyze the role of the Dragon-Elephant duo in the region.

The current development challenges are an indication of dynamism on the one hand and vulnerability on the other. Any carelessness might lead to negative developments and instability. (1) Southeast Asia's position as a bridge between two oceans as well as between the continents of Asia and Oceania gives the region a distinctive identity and importance. It is not only an important area for trade and transport but it also serves as vital Sea Lanes of Communication (hereinafter SLOCS); accounting for 32 percent of world oil net trade and 27 percent of world gas net trade. (2) Because of maritime disputes in the South China Sea and border conflicts with Southeast Asia the region has become a priority for China. (3)

The SCS is regarded as one of the most dynamic and controversial regions in the world with multiple issues crisscrossing each other, including territorial sovereignty; fast economic development; multiple claims to the islands, rocks, and reefs; disputes over which coastal states claim rightful jurisdiction over waters and the seabed; disputes over the proper balance of regional and international rights to use the seas for military purposes; maritime security; and environmental degradation. In fact, many view the SCS as being in a state of hope and prosperity, on the one hand, and uncertainty and threat, on the other. China has long viewed the "near seas" (the Bohai Gulf, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea) as regions of core geostrategic interest. (4)

In fact, the dispute over the Spratly Islands presents a particular obstacle to initiate peace and stability and has now become a focus of intense competition and conflicting claims. China's recent recognition of the SCS as a "core national interest" (hexinliyi) is one of the primary reasons behind China's "getting tough theory." The complex disputes in the SCS seem to be essentially a tangled knot of intractable challenges. Notable incidents include China's attack on Vietnam regarding the Paracel Islands in 1974, China's attack on Vietnam near Fiery Cross Reef in 1988, and China's clash with the Philippines overthe Mischief Reef in 1995, as well as other incidents like those of the Impeccable and the USNS Bowditch.


The South China Sea generated little interest to any potential claimants before the 20lh century. This region was not even considered a particularly dangerous zone, however, things have changed. Located in S 3 degree-N 25 degree and E 98 degree- 123 degree, the South China Sea is twice as large as the East China Sea with an area of 648,000 square nautical miles (hereinafter nm). (5) The South China Sea is an integrated ecosystem, and is one of the richest seas in the world in terms of marine flora and fauna; floral reefs, mangroves, fish and plants. (6) SCS is the largest marginal sea in West Pacific, and the biggest tropics sea basin in the world. (7) This region has long been regarded as a major source of tension in the Pacific Asia region because of its geostrategic location; competition for control over natural resources; as well as maritime and territorial disputes. In fact, it has been a longstanding global concern too. The SCS has recently been the locus of disputes that have the potential of escalating into serious international conflicts.

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea bordered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. (8) There are four main island groups in the SCS: the Paracels, the Spratlys, the Pratas and the Macclesfield Bank. Before the end of the Cold War, the presence of both the Russian as well as the United States navy facilities in Vietnam and Philippines largely provided a stabilizing balance of power in the region. However, their withdrawal from this region has made China the dominant naval force. Neighbors fear that Beijing is trying to establish the entire region as a "Chinese Lake." (9) According to Rosenberg, three movements--resource control, the conservation movement of environmentally sustainable resources and security movement contribute to the growing importance of the South China Sea region. This area has become critical among the disputing countries because of its geographic position in major oceanic routes used by crude oil tankers from the Persian Gulf to Asia, routes for goods from Asia to the rest of the world, and promising offshore oil and gas reserves. The Spratly seabed is thought to contain the greatest concentration of oil and gas reserves within the South China Sea. (10)

Ninety percent of Japan's oil passes through this area (11) and China has called the sea a "second Persian Gulf." As Asia's energy consumption grows in parallel with its economic development, access to and control of these resources will weigh heavily on claimant perceptions of the strategic value of contested areas (12)--not least the Spratlys. Regarding the Spratly issue, Beijing moves forward with a "three no's" policy--no specification of claims, no multilateral negotiations, and no internationalization of the subject. (13) China has even consolidated its facilities at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago with the installation of an early warning radar system. At the same time, China maintains a continuing naval presence at Mischief Reef off the west coast of the Philippines. (14) The wider significance of disputes in the SCS relates to the threat that a higher level of military action could pose to the SLOCs, which are part of the SCS vital arteries to other parts of the world, including the Middle East. If the sea lines of communication get disrupted due to armed conflict, then the economic interests of the Asia-Pacific countries as well as the United States would be severely affected. (15) Over half of the top ten container shipping ports in the world are located in or around the South China Sea, which is the main artery of transportation for imports and exports. In fact, it is not too much to say that this region has become the hub of the industrial revolution of Asia. (16)


The South China Sea dispute embodies two dimensions: territorial sovereignty and jurisdictional rights under maritime demarcation arising from differing interpretations following the 1982 UNCLOS. (17) The potential riches of the South China Sea and its adjacent waters have increased competition and conflicts, and thus it might be said that the Asian theater will be critical for shaping state practice regarding the law of the sea and determining whether or not the 1982 convention will really constitute the law in being. (18) The UNCLOS rules, especially those relating to the EEZ, have converted the entire region into the most extensively claimed area in the world. (19) The South China Sea dispute has an obvious geostrategic dimension. And if China ever succeeds in realizing its territorial claims, it would then "extend its jurisdiction some one thousand nautical miles from its mainland so as to command the virtual Mediterranean or maritime heart of Southeast Asia with far-reaching consequences for the strategic environment." (20) According to Garver, Lebensraum ideas have strongly influenced Chinese policy in the South China Sea since the late 1970s. (21)

The SCS provides 25 percent of the protein needs for 500 million people and 80 percent of the Philippine diet. (22) The South China Sea has acquired added significance since it harbors large energy reserves. Thus it has become quite impossible for the claimants to follow the "good fences make good neighbors" policy at least in the sea. (23) Furthermore, most of the East Asian countries use a straight baseline system (24) to calculate boundaries and are criticized for distortion due to the liberal interpretation of UNCLOS article 7. (25) One basis for China's claim to the waters of the South China Sea is historic title. Although the UNCLOS Convention does not define the legal regime of historic title or historic waters, it recognizes these regimes in Articles 10(6), 15, and 46(b).

Construction of China's Yulin Naval Base near Sanya on Hainan Island enhanced its strategic significance for the balance of power in the region. This base will provide China with the capability to extend the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN'S) military reach into the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea. The piers and...

To continue reading