The South China sea is an extended arm of the Pacific Ocean, lying to the South of China and Vietnam, and the west of the Philippines. The Malay Peninsula lines its east coast, and the Gulf of Thailand covers its southern part.
All the rival countries surrounding the sea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei have been competing over the years to claim the whole territory or portions of it. The sea has vital shipping lanes, and two major island chains, the Paracels, and the Spratlys, rich with various species of fish, and abundant oil and gas reserves. China has been claiming the largest part of the territory, backing the claim with island-building and naval patrolling.
It says that the country’s right to this area dates to centuries back when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were crucial parts of the Chinese nation. In 1947, Beijing issued a map demanding the area demarcated by ‘nine-dash lines’, which encompassed both the island chains and territorial waters entirely. The demarcated area stretched hundreds of miles south and east from China’s southernmost province, Hainan. China has established its militia and has been expanding over the South China Sea territory, which has increased tensions and may lead to serious global consequences. But China has been insisting that its intentions are peaceful.
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 13th July 2020 that China’s pursuit of offshore resources in parts of the South China Sea is ‘completely unlawful’ and that Beijing had no legal ground to impose its will on the region unilaterally. He deplored Beijing’s “campaign of bullying other countries to control” the disputed waters that are potentially energy-rich. China then accused that the US deliberately distorts facts and International law.
The US has condemned and opposed China’s activities for a long time but had not called them illegal until now. Mr Pompeo’s statements came amidst intensifying relations between China and many other countries. He said, “any [People’s Republic of China] action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful. The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” The US might take further actions to back up its stance, but nothing is clear as of now.
During its annual defence review, Japan stated that China’s naval activities are a matter of great concern, and accused Beijing of trying to manipulate the status quo in the east and south China seas.
The Chinese embassy in Washington DC posted on Twitter saying that the “US state department deliberately distorts the facts and international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” It opposed the US’ conjecture saying, “America exaggerates the situation in the region and attempts to sow discord between China and other littoral countries. The accusation is completely unjustified. The United States does not directly intervene in the disputes. However, it has kept interfering with this issue. Under the pretext of preserving stability, it is flexing muscle-power, stirring up tensions and inciting confrontation in the region.” The Chinese Embassy situated in the United States published these statements on its official website.
To come to a solution to this dispute, China wants to have bilateral negotiations with its rivals. But many of the countries contend that, with its humongous size and influence, China has an unfair edge over other countries.
Some countries have proposed that China should sit and deliberate with the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), a ten-member alliance which consists of Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia, to come to a final solution.
However, China denied doing so, while ASEAN is also divided internally over how to resolve the dispute.
In 2013, the Philippines sought international arbitration and announced that it would call out to China to an arbitration tribunal under the umbrella of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its affirmation. Following that, in July 2016, the arbitration tribunal supported the Philippines’ case, stating that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. Realizing the harm that this judgment may cause to China’s deleterious ambitions, it boycotted the proceedings and claimed the ruling to be “ill-founded” and that, it would not comply with the same.