Currently, the six nations bordering the South China Sea and the 530 million people living there are being affected by seven artificial islands built by the Chinese regime, using them to claim territorial rights.

Although such constructions are not considered valid for exercising territorial sovereignty, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has progressively increased the militarization of the extensive maritime area surrounding them. It even prohibits other countries from entering areas over which it claims territorial rights. 

A high percentage of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) transits through this area, covering millions of square kilometers. Additionally, a commercial exchange of several trillion dollars is carried out. Under its seabed lie gigantic reserves of oil and LNG, which are of interest to neighboring countries, all of which become a matter of global concern.

The Chinese regime supports its military intervention in the area over these pseudo-islands, arguing “primarily for the purpose of self-defense” while rejecting various legal instances that declare that their claims have “no legal basis,” as determined through an investigation by the U.S. Department of State (DOS) for Oceanic, Fisheries and Polar Affairs, in a Jan. 12 statement.   

This investigation states that China’s claims to the maritime territories radiating from the pseudo-islands are inconsistent with international law, specifically the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “This most recent study, the 150th in the Limits in the Seas series, concludes that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) asserts unlawful maritime claims in most of the South China Sea, including an unlawful historic rights claim,” the DOS press report states. 

Also, the claim to a territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone, and a continental shelf based on the treatment of each island group in the South China Sea claimed as a whole is not “permitted under international law.” 

The report concludes by urging the PRC to “… conform its maritime claims to international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention. Also to comply with the decision of the arbitral tribunal in its award of July 12, 2016, in the South China Sea Arbitration, and to cease its unlawful and coercive activities in the South China Sea.” 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague judged that China’s claim had “no legal basis,” also alluding to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which Beijing is a signatory. This pronouncement resulted from a lawsuit by the Philippines, a country that protested before the tribunal China’s ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago. They are located between the Philippines and Vietnam and comprise approximately 100 reefs and islets, offering abundant fishing grounds and vast natural gas and oil deposits.

On the other hand, the constructions over which the People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty do not meet the international definition of “island.” Moreover, they are located outside a legitimate territorial sea, incompatible with international law. These circumstances preclude their recognition by the United States and other States.

Nor does international law recognize countries’ sovereignty over totally submerged elements such as that taken by China over the James Shoal, Vanguard Bank, and Macclesfield banks. Nor over elevations uncovered at low tide, as with Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal, claimed by China. 

China’s incursions

The Chinese regime began by delimiting a vast expanse on a map of the South China Sea with nine lines claiming it for itself. However, without defining the coordinates precisely and trying to attribute legal force to them, which has been contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In this case, Indonesia refrained from claiming even though the CCP marked an area of that country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as its own.

The artificial islands built within the area marked with the nine lines, whose combined area is more than 1,300 hectares, provide the greatest support to the Chinese army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This action has drastically tipped the balance of power in the region in favor of the CCP.

Because of these long-term effects and the military actions that are progressively increasing, several nations have accused the Chinese regime of aggression and coercion, which is in contrast to financial contributions to the countries that bow to its aspirations of maritime expansion in the South China Sea.   

China argued historical rights to delimit with the nine lines the great maritime extension. However, the Philippines sued, and the trial ruled in its favor. The arbitral tribunal rejected the aspirations of the Chinese regime, through the award of July 12, 2016, on the Arbitration of the South China Sea cited above.

In this regard, China’s Foreign Ministry responded to the verdict that “Its [the arbitration’s] existence is illegal, and whatever ruling it makes is null and void, with no binding forcé,” despite China being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the basis of which the award was issued, according to The Diplomat. 

Although the leader of the CCP, Xi Jinping, had declared in 2015 that “China does not intend to pursue militarization in the South China Sea,” in fact, military bases were established on the artificial islands. However, the arbitral award that determined the regime’s claims over that maritime area lacked a legal basis was ignored. 

Moreover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated in February 2016 that “China’s deployment of limited defense facilities on its own territory (the Spratly Islands) is its exercise of self-defense right to which a sovereign state is entitled under international law. It has nothing to do with militarization,” going against international law. 

Previously, in 2002, China had agreed with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. In addition, it agreed to comply with the Charter of the United Nations, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), and the resolution of territorial disputes by peaceful means. 

These treaties also established restraint in actions that could lead to the escalation of conflicts. Yet, the CCP has disregarded all these multilateral commitments by continuously advancing territorial incursions in the South China Sea.

Further, escalating the contested dominance of these territorial waters, the Chinese regime enacted the China Coast Guard Law (CCG Law) on Feb. 1, 2021, which used the term “China’s jurisdictional waters” instead of “the nine lines.” Then on March 8, 2021, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, Li Zhanshu, stated in the report on the Work of the Standing Committee that the GCC Law had been issued “In order to implement Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military, and respond to the needs of national defense and military development in the new era.” 

China landed civilian aircraft at its Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reef airfields for the first time in 2016 and a military transport plane at Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate personnel. Likewise, it has built ports, military facilities, and airstrips mostly on Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty and seven outposts, respectively.

It has also militarized Woody Island with fighter planes, cruise missiles, and a radar system. It was clear to analysts that the China Coast Guard (CCG) constituted a second navy, evidencing the militarization of the South China Sea. 

Another incident involved the anchoring of 200 Chinese ships near the Philippine Whitsun Reef. It prompted the Philippine defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, to state in a communiqué that the Chinese communist regime has clear intentions to occupy even more areas in the South China Sea. Japan and Taiwan supported their claims with similar allegations.

“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intention to occupy more (areas) in the West Philippine Sea,” Lorenzana said in a statement on April 4.

As reported by Reuters, this was Lorenzana’s second statement in two days, as he repeated the Philippines’ calls for Chinese ships to leave what Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, located within 200 miles of its sovereign territory.

CCP authorities said the ships were taking shelter from the bad weather conditions. However, Lorenzana said: “I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no reason to stay there.”

Lorenzana went on to attack the actions of the communist regime, denouncing that, “They have done this (occupy disputed areas) before in Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and Panganiban Reef, blatantly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law.” 

Importance of the South China Sea

The South China Sea covers an area of 3.5 million square kilometers in Southeast Asia. It is a vital waterway that carries one-third of the world’s shipping traffic and nearly 40% of the world’s LNG trade, as well as 80% of China’s crude oil imports. It also has lucrative fish stocks. The value of annual trade through its waters is estimated at $5 trillion. 

According to official U.S. estimates, it also harbors oil and natural gas deposits that are at least as abundant as those of Mexico and, according to other unverified estimates, could be second only to those of Saudi Arabia. Estimates indicate that reserves in its bed could reach 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Consequently, a hypothetical blockade in the Strait of Malacca, for whatever reason, could generate absolute chaos in the global supply chain. Starting with interregional trade routes and multinational production centers geographically linked to the South China Sea, the specialized magazine China Power notes.

Risk of a global crisis

The controversial incursions by the Chinese regime in this sensitive region and the construction of the pseudo-islands that were declared illegal by an international court and the large military force that supports them are a cause of regional and international concern due to the latent risk of a global supply crisis if it prevents the voluminous transit of fuels and goods. 

Dr. Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst for Defense Strategy and Capabilities at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, describes some implications of the CCP’s proclaimed powers in this region of Southeast Asia.

For Davis, these constructions give China overwhelming power to control the transit of much of the world’s maritime trade. Moreover, this capability would allow it to isolate and coerce Japan in a crisis such as a military conflict initiated by the Chinese regime over Taiwan, according to the Australian media 9News of Nov. 26. 

There is also the possibility of China declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, which would mean permission would have to be sought for all proposed air movements in the area.

In fact, in August, the CCP’s Maritime Safety Administration imposed new rules for navigation through that area. The new rules require foreign vessels entering China-appropriated territorial seas to submit ship and cargo information to Chinese maritime authorities, starting Wednesday, Sept. 1, the South China Morning Post reported.

Moreover, submersibles, nuclear vessels, vessels carrying radioactive materials, vessels carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas, and other toxic and noxious substances, as well as other vessels deemed a threat to the safety of the country’s maritime traffic, are subject to the reporting requirements according to a notification issued by the administration on Friday, Aug. 27.

The notification of the regime included the obligation of reporting channel information and other requirements, such as the foreign vessel’s name, call sign, position, and any dangerous goods on board.

The risks of an eventual global traffic jam caused by the CCP prompt interested countries to conduct military demonstrations in the region as part of a deterrence strategy aimed at the Chinese regime. The 10-day drill conducted by the naval forces of the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan in the Philippine Sea off the southern coast of Japan in November is seen in this light. 

The U.S. Navy explained that one of those countries’ participation objectives was to “enhance maritime communication skills, anti-submarine warfare operations, air warfare operations, replenishments-at-sea, cross-deck flight operations, and maritime interdiction maneuvers,” according to VOA. 

In this context, retired U.S. Navy colonel and senior researcher at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Grant Newsham, alluded to the threats posed by China, saying, “A total of 34 warships from the five countries conducted a 10-day exercise, demonstrating the importance of this exercise.”

He added that although these training exercises had been scheduled for a long time, “it’s the broader context in which the exercise is happening that adds a certain urgency” as “China’s People’s Liberation Army is increasingly aggressive and spewing threats throughout the region.”

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