By: Lindsey Mattila (CMC ’17)
The South China Sea disputes have been a source of extreme tension in the past few years, but they also have a long history. The conflicts began in the 1940s when China made its nine-dash line map, claiming a majority of the South China Sea, including territory also claimed by many neighboring countries. Tensions mounted in 1974 when the Chinese defeated the Vietnamese during the Battle of the Paracel Islands, an area both countries claimed. Conflicts were less tense and occurred less frequently from 1970 through 1990. Still, countries with conflicting claims did sporadically confront each other, though mostly without using force. Since the mid-1990s, there have been steady conflicts between China and other states involved in the South China Sea, including Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and the United States. Tensions have intensified since China began building artificial islands in areas outside of its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2012. It was not until 2013, however, that the Philippines submitted a claim to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. China’s response to the Court’s ruling—or lack thereof—could have a major impact within and beyond the geopolitical landscape of the region: it would affect the economic, political, and military relations between China and neighboring countries as well as the United States.
When the Philippines submitted its case to the court, it was careful not to directly question China’s sovereignty or power. Instead of claiming its own sovereignty over the reefs and islands, it has asked the court to rule whether or not China’s small artificial islands are sufficient to assert economic and other rights to water in the surrounding area. For the last three years, China has largely dismissed the case as their strongest argument lies in the assertion that the court does not have jurisdiction to rule over the issue. In the last few weeks, however, China has started soliciting support from partner countries and started a week of naval exercises to strengthen its position. Last Saturday, for example, China’s navy reportedly held combat drills in disputed parts of the South China Sea.
Each country involved has its own reasons for being invested in the South China Sea. Note that an estimated 30% of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea. For this reason, the United States, China, and many other countries each have an economic interest in maintaining the free flow of trade through the area. Furthermore, countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are heavily reliant on their exclusive rights to fish in their respective EEZs. The disputed islands and waters are thought to contain almost $11 billion dollars’ worth of oil, as well as other valuable natural resources. Indonesia, which has no territorial disputes with China in the area, still has an EEZ that passes into the waters within China’s nine-dash line. Economic interests aside, countries that claim territory in the South China Sea, such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam rely on a positive ruling, and China’s adherence to the ruling, to maintain control over what they view as their sovereign territory.
There are also military concerns wrapped up in this conflict. If China were to obtain effective control over the area within its nine-dash line, it would gain an extremely valuable defense of its southern border. China has already equipped natural and artificial islands with landing strips, surface-to-air missile launchers, and sophisticated radar systems. Moreover, the United States maintains that militarizing the South China Sea will cause an unnecessary military buildup in the area with possible negative effects on trade.
Judging from relevant international law established in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international tribunal will probably rule against China’s claims. UNCLOS provides that coastal countries are allotted a 200 nautical-mile EEZ. China’s nine-dash line extends far beyond this, creating a complex issue since the region is a compact area where many EEZs overlap. In cases of overlapping EEZs, UNCLOS has a procedure for deciding which state will control which waters and which resources. Yet China has claimed control over much more of the sea than would normally be allowed by conventional rules.
Another principle of international law at risk in this conflict is the prohibition on the use of force. China, and, to a lesser extent, other countries, have repeatedly used force to strengthen their claims on parts of the South China Sea. This use of force was seen as early as 1974 during the Battle of the Paracel Islands. In March 2016, China used force to stop Indonesia from confiscating Chinese fishing boats operating in Indonesia’s EEZ. The United States, which has periodically sent combat ships into the area under the right of free passage since 2009, has had various near-confrontations with China. Lastly, China has put strict limitations on the right of free passage of other nations through waters that China controls.
To make a decision on this case, the court will look at previously agreed upon documents and treaties, countries’ behaviors, and other relevant facts. Due to the inconsistency of documents and behavior, the verdict could get tricky. Vietnam claims they have a map from the 1700s, China claims it has a map from the 1940s, and no country behaved consistently with either of these documents or with any preexisting treaty. Depending on how the tribunal interprets the arguments, the verdict could set precedent for future use of this strategy—one of building artificial islands to extend one’s land territory, and, therefore, EEZs.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration is likely to rule broadly in favor of the Philippines. China, which has already declared the process illegitimate, is probably going to ignore an unfavorable ruling. Such actions would likely be extremely concerning to the United States military and President Barack Obama. The United States had been using diplomacy, military deterrence, and international law to try to contain China’s expansionism in the South China Sea and protect trade in the region. If China effectively disables the use of international law as a means of holding it back by ignoring the ruling, the United States will have to step up its military efforts in the area, which will inevitably increase the likelihood of a confrontation.
 “Q&A: South China Sea Disupte,” BBC, accessed October 5, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
 Jane Perlez, New York Times, “Ruling on South China Sea Nears in a Case Beijing Has Tried to Ignore,” July 6, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/07/world/asia/china-hague-philippines-spratlys.html?_r=0
 Reuters, “China Holds Combat Drill in the South China Sea,” July 9, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-navy-idUSKCN0ZP036
 The Economist, “Sunnylands and Cloudy Waters,” February 20, 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21693207-chinas-bullying-south-china-sea-must-not-be-allowed-pay-sunnylands-and-cloudy
 Tom Benner, AlJazeera, “Tensions Escalate of South China Sea Claims,” June 5, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/tensions-escalate-south-china-sea-claims-160605065515637.html