China's latest strategic affairs music is falling on deaf ears globally, whether it was the debacle in the Galwan Valley in Leh ir North India or the manouveres around islands in the South China Sea.
The Chinese claims and the push back by nations that fall in the South China Sea is not new and there have been competing claims by many countries in the region.
Throughout the past week, both the United States and Australia have dismissed substantial portions of China's comprehensive maritime claims in the South China Sea, as well as territorial claims by any state to marine reefs. More strikingly, the US is also compelling Australia to enter its freedom of navigation in the sea-a move that is likely to further discredits China's claims.
There have certainly been a number of varying and escalating tensions in recent years that could probably change the face of the earth in the course of action leading to a far greater catastrophic upturn. Thus, it becomes important to understand how this conflict started and what international law says about freedom of navigation and conflicting maritime claims in the waters.
Why South China Sea Matters
The South China Sea holds a stretch of around 1.4 million sq. miles in the Pacific Ocean. As a major shipping route, one-third of the world's shipping flows through the region, carrying more than $3 trillion in global maritime trade annually. Moreover, the increasing demand for other resources, such as hydrocarbons, has definitely created a platform for mega-economic rivalry from a recent perspective. According to the World Bank, the South China Sea contains proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, slightly different from the EIA (Energy Information Administration), United States estimates.
The claimant nations like the People's Republic of China, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Brunei are not only eyeing for the fisheries stock but also on the barrels of oil and natural gas it holds in.
The ongoing disputes in the Sea has a larger motive that breathes beneath, establishing supreme leadership and procuring potentials that are of immense strategic significance.
China's Claim Vs The Law
Under the Law of the Sea Convention, all States have the right to an "exclusive economic zone" of 200 nautical miles to exploit the wealth of the sea and the seabed as measured from their property. When these zones overlap, countries are obliged to negotiate with other claimants.
China has been claiming more than 80 per cent territory, asserts its sovereignty based on highly disputable evidence from ancient times, on the Paracel and Spratly islands, as well as more recent claims from 1902-'39. Japan occupied the islands during the Second World War and later recognised the claim of the Republic of China, now Taiwan, in a 1952 peace treaty. The island's rival applicants dispute the validity of this proof. Vietnam has equally reliable evidence from the pre-and post-World War II eras.
Then there is the wider issue of China's superior claim to waters within the u-shaped "nine-dash" line. This line, which skirts the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam, was first drawn by the Nationalist government of China in 1947. This line extends for 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland, encompassing over half of the sea. The claim had no basis in international law - then, or now.
In a historic decision in 2016, an International Tribunal in The Hague ruled against part of China's claims to the sea in a case brought by the Philippines. China rejected the authority of the tribunal and its finding in the case.
China continues to build military and industrial borders on its artificial islands in the South China Sea, with little concern about the serious repercussions.
War of Words
The whole picture of arguments and shades of blame-game went on tweet war when the envoys of China and Australia posted in New Delhi sparred on social media over the South China Sea and claims made by China on those waters.
On Thursday, Australian High Commissioner to India, Barry O'Farrell spoke about the Australian perspective on developments in the Indo-Pacific during the Covid-19 pandemic and said Australia "rejects" China's "unlawful" claims in the South China Sea, reported India Today.
"Australia remains deeply concerned by actions in the South China Sea that are destabilising and could provoke escalation. On July 23, Australia lodged a note with the UN Secretary-General refuting China's unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea," he said.
On Friday, China's envoy to India Sun Weidong tweeted to counter the Australian envoy's views and asserted that Beijing's claims were in conformity with international laws, including UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
To this, the Australian High Commissioner Barry O'Farrell responded by daring China to accept and acknowledge the South China Sea Arbitral Award.
"Thank you @China_Amb_India. I would hope then you follow the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award which is final and binding under international law, and also generally refrain from actions that unilaterally alter the status quo," he said.
Full blown altercation
However, in recent years the United States intervention with its intensified military and naval capabilities in the South China Sea, have clearly outlined a new impression.
According to the United States, claimant countries, under UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), should have freedom of navigation through the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and are not required to notify claimants of military activities. To protect the security and economic interest in the region, the United States has challenged China's assertive reclamation policies by conducting a number of freedoms of navigation operations (FONOPs).
The role of the United States can make a significant mark by preventing military aggression resulting from constant territorial conflicts.
Previously, US policy had been to insist that maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbours be resolved peacefully through UN-backed arbitration. But in a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US now regards virtually all Chinese maritime claims outside its internationally recognized waters to be illegitimate.
The shift does not involve disputes over land features that are above sea level, which are considered to be territorial in nature.
The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire, Pompeo said.
Meanwhile, Australia's statement on the South China Sea last week was its strongest rejection yet of China's claims to the waters. It did not represent a new position on the legal issues, but marked a fresh determination to confront China over its unreasonable claims and its bullying behaviour in the maritime disputes.