In the southeast of Asia lies a large body of water that has received more claimants than the last piece of ham at Christmas: the South China Sea. For decades, the South China Sea has been the focus of a territorial dispute between six surrounding countries – China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia,  Brunei and the Philippines – all trying to claim their rightful part of the sea. Most of these countries have taken a legal approach and have based their claim on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but China has not. Instead, the superpower has marked its sovereign area using the so-called “nine-dash line”, a principle that it claims dates back to its naval expeditions in the 15th century. 

A depiction of the situation in the South China Sea. The red dotted line shows China’s “nine-dash line.” Source: VOX

 This claim has led a rather assertive China, which is forcing its sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, much further than what UNCLOS allows. China is convinced that these actions are serving its interests, but this couldn’t be less true. China should, therefore, diminish its presence in the South China Sea. Doing so will demonstrate its dedication to international arbitration, show its commitment to ensuring equal economic opportunities for all, and place the country on a higher political pedestal.

Eschewing International Arbitration

It seems quite clear, even to the non-legal scholar, that China is ignoring international law. It is true, in fact, that when the Philippines charged China with invading its rightful territory (based on the statutes of UNCLOS), the Hague ruled in favour of the brave archipelago. China, unsurprisingly, blatantly rejected the ruling.

China’s behaviour regarding the decision caused international outrage, leaving diplomats and scholars to debate the legality of China’s choice to ignore international arbitration of this kind.

In the past, none of the five members of the UN Security Council have ever accepted an international court’s ruling, if (in their view) it infringed too much with their sovereignty or national interests. In the long term, however, compliance with international arbitration comes with a sought-after benefit: it shows that a state is committed to securing a rule-based global order. 

Unequal  Economic Opportunities 

The South China Sea is of crucial economic importance. Not only is the area a main trading route – 30% of the world shipping trade flows through it – it is also incredibly rich in natural resources. It has been estimated that the area holds about 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 10% of the world’s fisheries.

But by enforcing its nine-dash line claim, China is taking, one might even say stealing, the majority of these resources. This is because China’s nine-dash line intersects with the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the other claimants in the region. The EEZ is a zone over which a country has exclusive rights, according to UNCLOS. This means that any oil, gas, or fish found in, for example, Vietnam’s EEZ, belongs exclusively to Vietnam.

China, however, does not agree. In fact, there have been many instances where Chinese coast authorities have caught fishermen from other surrounding countries and quite literally stolen their resources. A recent article in Bloomberg illustrated the story of Vietnamese fisherman Tran Van Nhan, who was caught by China’s coast guards near the contested areas of the South China Sea. He was told to stop fishing, and if he continued to do so, they threatened to cut his net, take his boat, and severely punish him. The Chinese coast guards then proceeded to take the fishermen’s four-day catch: over two tons of fried squid worth $10,000, which is roughly four times the average Vietnamese annual income.

Such outcomes cause a serious strain on the economy of the other surrounding countries. These are mostly developing nations, who rely heavily on their small industries in the South China Sea. If China were to diminish its presence and stick to the EEZ rule, then everyone involved can enjoy the sea’s resources and benefit economically. 

Political hostility 

China fears that by diminishing its presence in the South China Sea, it will lose out politically. But the opposite is true: it has a lot to lose by continuing to aggressively assert its presence. 

First of all, there is the security aspect. By overemphasizing its presence in the South China Sea, China has the potential to initiate uninvited political turmoil. This is because China has been building a handful of islands in these waters. Island building in itself is not a crime, but China is a) doing so in other countries’ waters, and b) equipping these islands with military bases. The Spratly Islands (nothing more than underwater reefs 5 years ago), for instance, are currently claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. China, however, believes all of the Spratly Islands belong to them. Installing military bases on these artificial islands shows how China is willing to defend this man-made land by force. A few years ago, when flying over Mischief Reef (an island east of the Spratly Islands) a US military plane was told to “Leave immediately and keep far off.”

If China continues to act this way, tensions in the region will heighten. Some nations are already preparing for such a scenario. In February 2017, Steve Bannon, who was formerly a chief strategist at the White House, stated that “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years, there is no doubt about that.”

The South China Sea issue is not only a danger to international security; it has environmental implications as well. By remaining in the area, China is not favouring its newly established position as a new player in the global fight against climate change. This is because China’s massive reclamation activities (i.e. its extensive island building), which are almost two dozen times more than that of all other claimant countries combined, have caused severe ecological damage. The South China Sea supports the largest concentration of marine biodiversity on earth. According to experts, the damages that China is invoking by building its islands are worth nearly $880 million.

Such hypocritical actions are unbecoming of an up-and-coming power in international climate governance like China. If China were to abandon these activities, it would make its commitment to combat climate change much more legitimate.

The final card to play is the humanitarian one. China has been trying to raise its humanitarian profile, but by continuing to occupy the South China Sea, this image could quickly shatter. China’s inequitable treatment of the aforementioned fishermen plays a role here. These men are not only being treated unfairly economically; their human rights are violated too.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the fishermen who stray too far away from home, although still within their legal EEZ, can face severe human rights abuses. AMTI reports have shown that the lucky ones are kidnapped for ransom and let go afterward. Others are kidnapped, abused, and sometimes even murdered. These men are extremely maltreated in inhumane and degrading conditions. They are kept in small, hot rooms with little food and no toilets. If they put one foot out of line, they are faced with beatings so severe that some are left with permanent disabilities.

These actions are already looked down upon if they take place in China’s EEZ, but China faces considerably more shame by conducting them in what is legally part of another country’s sovereign territory.

Constraint cooperation

Right now, China is resorting to the second-best option: multilateral cooperation. China and ASEAN – an intergovernmental organization which some have described as the Asian equivalent of the EU – have created the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership. This relationship, which was started 16 years ago, has matured considerably over time and has resulted in notable breakthroughs in the  South China Sea. One such example is their first Joint Naval Exercise, in October 2018, which not only highlighted Beijing’s commitment to boosting regional stability, but provided new insights that are relevant to the development of the region’s security architecture. 

But although such cooperation is applauded, it is only a first step. Thanks to the ASEAN countries’ joint efforts, the situation in the South China Sea has cooled down a bit, but it is far from being resolved. China is still running the show. 

China should decrease its assertiveness in the South China Sea, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in everyone’s interest, including China’s. All arguments – legal, economic, and political – point towards that conclusion.