China’s claim to every unoccupied island, sandbar, reef and shoal in the South China Sea is no more than an attempt to bully its neighbours – and cash in on possible oil and gas deposits.
The Philippines is right to ask the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas to resolve the conflict – which is threatening to worsen, with Chinese and Philippine vessels engaged in a standoff. Last month, a Philippine warship found fishing boats and surveillance ships from China in the Scarborough shoal, which is five times closer to the Filipino coast than to China’s. And this week, China’s state-owned tourism operator suspended ties with the Philippines after organizers pledged demonstrations outside Chinese embassy buildings.
Beijing claims that nearly all of the 3.5 million square kilometres of the sea is its sovereign territory because, centuries ago, Chinese explorers found and named the islands. This is a weak argument. The Philippines believes its geographical proximity to the islands forms a more legitimate claim, while Vietnam disputes China's historical account, saying China didn’t claim sovereignty over the islands until the 1940s. Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia have also made rival claims. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes the 200-miles-from-shore Exclusive Economic Zones of the other claimants.
China’s aggression comes just as the Philippines and Vietnam are opening up the waters they claim to foreign companies such as Shell and Chevron for oil exploration. While the Filipino navy is no match for China’s, it has the U.S. on its side. Indeed, the U.S. Navy conducted its annual war games recently around Palawan island, close to one of the disputed areas, and the U.S. is seeking legal backing for increased patrols in the area.
China should adapt to contemporary geopolitical realities. Its claim is spurious. A solution should be found through negotiation and diplomacy – not through intimidation and threats. It is in the interests of all parties to settle this before tensions escalate further, and China is drawn into a dispute with global implications.