New Delhi: Judges at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague on Tuesday rejected China’s claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea.
About 3.5 mn sq km area of the South China Sea has been under dispute since centuries as rival countries have claimed sovereignty over the territory.
Some of the incidents between 1974 and 2014 have escalated tension between Vietnam and China. There have been stand-offs between Philippines and China too.
Non-claimants want the South China Sea to remain as international waters, with the United States conducting “freedom of navigation” operations.
Both China and the US have accused each other of “militarising” the South China Sea. There are fears that the area is becoming a breaking point, with potentially serious global consequences.
US is not a signatory of UNCLOS. Nevertheless, the US has stood by its manoeuvres, claiming that “peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),” is allowed under the convention.
The sea is a major shipping route, with roughly $4.5 tn of ship-borne trade passing through every year. The region is also believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and gas reserves. It is home to fishing grounds that supply livelihoods to people across the region.
Other countries apart from China that claim territory to the disputed sea are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Here’s a bit of the history. In 2013, The Philippines had asked a tribunal of five arbitrators to (a) declare as invalid China’s vast claims using the ‘nine-dash line’. The Philippines also asked the tribunal to (b) classify whether a number of disputed areas could be called islands, low-tide coral outcrops or submerged banks. It also wanted China to (c) be declared in violation of the convention for carrying out fishing and construction activities that breached the Philippines’ maritime rights (when China snatched Scarborough Shoal away from the Philippines in 2012).
China had boycotted the proceedings after the decision was announced on Tuesday. An official statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the decision “null and void.”
China’s claims to the South China Sea are based on ‘historic rights’ backed by imperial maps showing ‘nine-dashed’ line covering the sea region under its rights.
In view of the current situation, India is not only trying to keep her interests in mind but also at the same time trying not to antagonize China, America and the littoral ASEAN nations.
India’s discomfort has increased sharply because New Delhi finds that what China is doing in the South China Sea is being replicated in spirit and tactics on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which goes through territory claimed by India.
With no definite solution emerging at present, the dispute has only reached one of its breaking points with the verdict. The risk of an armed clash has become even bigger. China vows to protect sovereignty after the ruling and maintains that it has all the rights to set up air defence zone in the region.
Clash stemming from US military operations within China’s EEZ that provokes an armed Chinese response is the worst case scenario. At the same time, China developing its capabilities would put US forces in the region at risk during a conflict, thus potentially denying access to the US Navy in the western Pacific.