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Strong winds on the South China Sea

By Hannah Wade - posted Friday, 5 February 2016

Mass media and mania surrounds a number of global issues today – from the alarming rise of Islamic State and its threat to stability in the Middle East, to the latest crazed Twitter outburst from Kanye West. Indeed, the omnipresent, social media fuelled news cycle jumps from international terrorist incident to celebrity updates with ease. However, our need for information on certain issues can be starkly contrasted against the underwhelming coverage of developments in the South China Sea to date.

Of course, while there are many world issues which may be well worth our attention span, it seems that the South China Sea dispute is shaping up to be one of the most significant sources of tension in the Asia Pacific region today – yet, it is not exactly a hot news topic. While Sarah Palin wildly declares that a certain US presidential candidate is ready to “kick ISIS ass”, the boldest statement so far from Australia regarding the South China Sea dispute has been from Senator Stephen Conroy, who voiced his (since criticised) view that “Australia should be prepared to act to support the international system in the South China Sea, and we should not be shy about our actions and intentions in doing so”.

While Australian neutrality and measured diplomacy may better serve our interests in ongoing trade and the protection of shipping routes in the region, it is clear that this issue is becoming increasingly worrisome, with visitations to disputed islands by the Taiwanese President (against the express wishes of the US),and US warships sailing near islands claimed by China in the past few days alone.


So how concerned should we be?

A significant portion of global shipping travels through routes in the South China Sea, likely to increase in the future because of rising economic growth of the countries at its shores – China, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan in particular. Undoubtedly, the booming economies of a number of these counties, all of which have significant populations and potential for commercialisation and growth, will continue to render the area ever more globally significant – a fact of which all parties involved are very aware. For Australia in particular, around 60% of our exports pass through the troubled waters of the South China Sea.

Indeed, the South China Sea – the meeting place of some of the most burgeoning economies in the world today, many of which are experiencing significant military expansion, population booms and resource consumption – is a hotbed of controversy. Combined with potentially undiscovered oil and gas reserves (as well as fishing resources), it is clear that the tensions surrounding the region will not be easily nor quickly resolved.  Tensions have bubbled over sovereignty claims over disputed islands, including exercises of land reclamation (China alone is estimated to have reclaimed more than 1170 hectares – around 17 times more land than the other claimants combined). Add in disputed interpretations of rights at international law, and a recipe for disaster appears to loom.

Yet, apparently it is not all doom and gloom. Experts continue to debate whether the territorial disputes between the various countries bordering the South China Sea will actually erupt – or more relevantly to Australia, materially affect global trade or generate armed conflict.

It should be observed that disputes between powers in the region have existed for some time – notably, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, Chinese and Vietnamese naval clashes resulted in pockets of naval conflict and loss of life. Various international treaties have been established in an attempt to dissuade conflict in the past, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the ASEAN and Chinese jointly issued Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea; and the development of customary international law on the issue.

Greg Austin, a visiting professor at the University of New South Wales certainly seems to think that this is an historical issue which should not cause particular panic, stating that “China has not embarked on an operation to expand its territory and is defending what it sees as its historical claims.” China asserts a historical claim over much of the disputed territory and island chains in the South China Sea (citing the ‘nine-dash line’ map that was published by the Chinese Ministry of the Interior in 1947 as the source of its claims), while Vietnam, on the other hand, asserts it has actively ruled over island chains such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands since the 17th century.


However, the issue has come to significant international attention in recent times, since China began drilling operations near the Paracel Islands in 2014, only 120 nautical miles from the coast of Vietnam (and within the 200 mile exclusive economic zone that UNCLOS established). Escalating strains between the Chinese and Vietnamese governments ensued, sparking riots and the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Vietnam. The Philippines has also launched legal action with the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration over its territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands. However, China maintains a hard-line position with respect to the arbitration process: neither accepting nor participating in proceedings, and openly stating that China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters, while rejecting any solution imposed on it by the international community.

In light of these developments, academics such as Professor Carlyle Thayer, an expert on the South China Sea from Australia's Defence Force Academy, disagree with the ‘historical conflict’ explanations of the dispute, stating China is “slowly excising the maritime heart out of south-east Asia” using vague ‘historical rights’ arguments”. Fears have mounted that in a maritime-focused region whose nations, industries and populations are set to demand more energy, more goods and more transport in coming years, the South China Sea is set to become the heart of burgeoning economies of the region – and the control and stability of that heart will be very important.

Indeed, in recent times, the South China Sea has increasingly become an armed military zone, with fly-bys (and sail-bys) by US forces to boot. The US has increased exercises, training, ship and aircraft visits to the region in the past year, maintaining its position that the crucial sea lane running through the South China Sea should be treated as international waters. Australia has confirmed its approval of this view,and while it has not committed to a firm plan on the issue, has refused to rule out sending ships to the area. China however, has not taken kindly to practical tests of this Western-backed view, claiming American incursions close to militarised and Chinese-claimed islands to be “provocative” – and even so far as to be “irresponsible and extremely dangerous”.

Lowy Institute academic Rory Medcalf recently mused that “Australia's greatest strategic challenges are very much in the realm of geopolitics, in our Indo-Pacific region. They are related to changing balances of power, the use of force, and the way in which planning for our future may be frustrated by the interests, concerns and destabilising behaviour of other states.” Indeed, the development of militarised islands in the South China Sea, the belligerent stand-offs between countries and allies, and diminishing confidence in sea and air safety in the region is quickly rendering this issue one of the most likely current global issues that could affect Australian shores directly. While mass hysteria (or media) may not in fact be necessary, it is important for us to be aware of what is on our doorstep, and to prepare for it.

The need for a rules-based international order remains essential to Australia’s continued growth and trade interests in the vast Asia-Pacific maritime region. Our neighbours are continuing to seek to embrace ways of thinking, doing business and connecting closer to our own, and we are more and more connected with these countries both economically and socially.  As such, our business people, entrepreneurs and the general community, as well as our security analysts and politicians, have a vested interest in the progress and outcome of the dispute in the South China Sea, and should be wary of potential tremors in the stability of the region.

Perhaps Sarah Palin was onto something with her use of anti-terrorist rhetoric after all – in this case, it may well be in all of our interests for Australians to “be alert, but not alarmed” when it comes to the strong winds blowing on the South China Sea.

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About the Author

Hannah Wade is a lawyer and foreign affairs analyst based in Sydney. She currently works in a top tier global law firm in international mergers and acquisitions, and is an active member of the New South Wales Young Lawyers International Law Committee. Hannah has studied internationally at the University of Vienna, and has previously worked as a legal advisor in Montreal, Canada. Hannah is also an ambassador for the Plan International Because I Am a Girl campaign, and a keen gender issues advocate. Her honours thesis was on the topic of international law and extraterritorial jurisdiction, and she traveled to Israel as part of a Global Voices Research Fellowship.

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