Playing musical chairs in the South China sea

Charlotte Flaba, traduit par Lucie Perrier
27 Septembre 2014

The South China Sea has been the stage of confrontations, for about fifty years, between its local residents concerning the wealth it withholds and its territories without formal owners. This unresolved conflict extends to the western world with the intervention of the United States and influences the relationship between its opponents.

Crédit Hau Dinh/AP/SIPA
Crédit Hau Dinh/AP/SIPA
Since countries have discovered that there was as much, or even more, wealth in the continents than is the seas and oceans, they have been racing as to determine “to whom will belong the international lands”. Indeed, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that every country has a right over a delimited zone called the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), which follows the coast of a distance of 200 nautical miles with a possible extension of 200 km thanks to the continental shelf.

However, this delimitation puts aside some international territories, also known as “international waters” which belong to everybody…yet nobody at the same time. It represents more than half of the oceans worldwide and abounds in wealth impossible to exploit since the only authorized operation in these international waters has to be of interest for Humanity.

The complicated situation in the South China Sea

The South China Sea, just like the Arctic Ocean, is a place of international conflict.  It is surrounded by China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. And like any other sea, it is full of unexploited wealth and therefore attracts companies, mainly from China and Japan. There has been a conflict for the past fifty years about the ownership of the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands (respective names in Japanese and Chinese). 

These islands are situated exactly where the Chinese EEZ and Japanese EEZ meet.  Moreover, China proclaimed a zone of air protection over these islands in order to detect any planes flying over the area. However, this proclamation was ignored by the United States.

The Paracel and Spratly islands are also the objects of a disagreement as they are in international waters but under the control of China, while they are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Furthermore, only a few countries recognize the maritime delimitation set by China at the end of World War II.

The Sino-Japanese conflict

China and Japan fight on two fronts: militarily and diplomatically. Both are equipped with military protection and new fleets and carefully monitor their air zone. This conflict is often referred to as "cold" because there is no real attack, as Japan does not have an army. They are moving heaven and earth to rally other countries to their cause. It was announced recently that the Chinese President Xi Jinping was planning to go to India in an attempt of reconciliation despite past events (let’s not forget about the accusation of New Delhi concerning the illegal occupation of states Jammu and Kashmir). Thus, the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Tokyo proves that India does not close the door to Chinese investment.

Added to that is the American intervention following the call of Malaysia with the support of the Philippines to limit China's growth in the South China Sea. However, this situation is becoming dangerous in the sense that there has been a collision between a trawler and an aircraft carrier, and that several other incidents have only just been narrowly avoided.

Despite the intervention of the United States, no international organism intends to make a decision regarding this conflict that has been going on for decades.