China’s hegemonic tendencies in the South China Sea (SCS) are becoming evident. The unilaterally provoked dispute involves many of the maritime members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has caused significant concern around the world.
China was the only country to use military force to occupy the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, from South Vietnam in 1974 in the SCS.
Based on the controversial Nine-Dashed Line map, China claims more than 90 percent of the SCS.
These claims cover almost the entire SCS and include exclusive economic zones (EEZs), territorial waters and sometimes the physical boundaries of other countries.
Countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines have serious fears about China’s illegally claimed nine-dash line encroaching into their own geographies.
Indonesia, the de facto chair of ASEAN and a member of the G20, is not a claimant in the SCS disputes, but China claims part of its EEZ in the North Natuna Sea (NNS) as part of the nine-dash line map. .
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled in 2016 that the nine-dash line map was legally invalid and that there was no evidence that China exercised exclusive control over the SCS. The map also does not comply with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China and all ASEAN claimant countries are signatories to UNCLOS.
The dispute has led to several escalations and conflicts involving maritime nations surrounding the disputed area.
Instead, China has built several artificial islands on 3,200 acres of artificial land and has fully militarized three of its artificial islands in disputed waters.
China’s ambitions for regional dominance are driven by its ambitions to capture abundant natural resources and strategically secure all major trade and defense sea lanes.
China’s claims to the SCS are primarily based on historical assertions and a vague boundary line drawn on Chinese Communist Party (CPC) maps in an attempt to deter other neighboring countries.
The CPC’s hegemonic ambitions led the country to assert its territorial hegemony through various means, including military assertiveness, island-building, and diplomatic posturing.
The construction of artificial islands in the SCS, particularly the Spratly Islands or Nansha Kuntao in Chinese, is a unilateral move.
While establishing airstrips on these islands, effectively expanding its presence and asserting control over the surrounding waters, China has falsely built land and military facilities. Such moves have raised concerns among neighbors and are seen as an attempt to change the status quo and strengthen China’s territorial claims.
For example, the Paracel and Spratly Islands have significantly enhanced China’s offensive capabilities and expanded its EEZ beyond its own territorial waters.
The CPC has used its navy and coast guard to assert its presence and challenge the activities of other claimant states in the region.
There have been numerous incidents of Chinese ships harassing Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats, conducting military exercises and threatening foreign ships and aircraft in disputed areas. This determination has led to high tensions and occasional conflicts between China and other countries.
Most recently, the Philippine military said the Chinese Coast Guard forcefully seized Chinese rocket debris recovered by the Philippine Navy from the SCS near Titu Island. Complicating the issue, Chinese authorities claimed that no such seizure had taken place. Such cover-ups are evidence of China’s espionage tactics, which it has a history of deploying in particularly sensitive areas.
Chinese maritime forces are notorious for inciting conflicts with their Philippine counterparts by regularly harassing fishing boats and fishermen from the Philippines in the unilaterally-instigated disputed territory.
The Chinese navy has also been interdicting goods sent to Philippine outposts at sea.
Moreover, in addition to such military operations, the CPC has also adopted diplomatic strategies to advance its interests in the disputed region. It engaged in bilateral negotiations with individual claimant states, offering economic incentives and investments in exchange for concessions, leading many to believe that the CPC was compensating for its territorial conquest techniques.
As some countries in the region have competing territorial claims and varying levels of economic dependence on China, China has also sought to fragment regional unity by engaging in „divide and conquer” tactics.
In ASEAN, China has close friends like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Through these countries, China is trying to divide ASEAN over the SCS issue.
China’s growing economic power and influence in the region have further strengthened its position in influencing countries to enact policies in Beijing’s interests. Initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Global Security Initiative (GSI) deepen economic and security ties with countries in the region and beyond, earn foreign exchange and influence their policies on contentious issues.
Therefore, it is critical that countries realize that economic benefits come at a very significant cost in trading off their sovereign decision-making autonomy on key issues such as the SCS dispute.
The Chinese government, through the dictates enforced by the CPC, is on the way to violating the basic principle of sovereignty that respects the borders of other countries in its attempt to rise as the sole hegemonic power.
In the larger interest of the global community, China’s tactics to prevent growing sovereign powers must be curbed and dealt with with utmost caution to avoid an all-out conflict in the region.
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