South China sea in strategic calculus of South East Asia

The South China Sea is a semi-closed sea located in the Pacific Ocean adjacent to East Asia. The sea has been a bone of contention for quite some time among not only its littoral states but also distant states.The South China Sea (SCS) is part of the Pacific Ocean extending from the Strait of Malacca in the south west of the sea to the Strait of Taiwan in the north east of the sea. Albeit the SCS is a marginal sea of the Pacific, it is enclosed by several littoral states including Cambodia and Vietnam from the west; Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesiaand Brunei from the south and south east;the Philippines from the east and China and Taiwan from the north and the north east respectively. These littoral states surrounding the SCS form the region of South East Asia. The SCS contains the global trade arteries handling one third of the global trade. The sea lanes of communication that pass through the sea are considered to be the busiest maritime waterways in the world. Besides, these sea lanes are equally considered strategically important as warships and military vessels apart from commercial shipping vessels navigate through these arteries. Moreover, the U.S. Seventh Fleet regularly transits through this route between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean and China also conducts different naval exercises in the western Pacific.

According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, a sea-power theorist and a retired naval strategist, strategic features in maritime domain can be classified by positions, strengths and resources. As delineated above with respect to its geographical position, the SCSis located in the heartland of the Indo-Pacific with warm waters containing the commercial and military arteries and giving free navigation and stationing to all kinds of shipping vessels. Its position is not only alluring for connected littoral states but also appealing for far reaching states for maritime transit and navigation purposes.

The primary strength of the SCS lies in its sea lanes that facilitate huge global trade and shipping movement between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. According to the figures documented by the Council on Foreign Relations, “3.37 trillion dollar total trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016 and forty percent of global liquefied natural gas trade transited through the South China Sea in 2017.” These figures imply the importance of the SCS in global maritime economy.

Renowned journalist Robert Kaplan called the South China Sea: “the 21st century’s defining battleground and throat of global sea routes.” China’s policy shift from continental military approach to the naval build up for sea power, the “pivot” or “rebalancing” policy of the USA in the western Pacific and increasing naval armaments of South East Asian nations reinforce the claim of Kaplan. Security of the SCS is crucial to all maritime states for navigational purposes and especially for littoral states that are dependent on these waters for free movement of goods and international trade.

The importance of security of the SCS can be gauged from the fact that when threats of armed robbery and piracy increased in the Strait of Malacca, littoral states, despite their territorial disputes/overlapping claims over the SCS and the historical rivalry, formed the security allianceto counter those threats and ensure freedom of navigation in the SCS. The Malacca Straits Security Initiative (MSSI) was established in 2004 by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It underscores how much important security of the SCS is for South East Asian nations; these countries adopted security cooperation as a bigger agenda and snubbed their long standing territorial disputes to maintain security of the SCS. The SCS dispute was intensified when China revealed its claim over waters of this sea in “Nine-dash line”. Nine-dash lines were marked on the map of SCSsubmitted to the UN Secretary General by China in 2009 being referred to as historical maritime rights of China on SCS. This “nine-dash line” encircles around 90 per cent of the contested water of SCS running as far as 2000 kilometer from mainland China as mentioned below in the map.

According to the estimates of ASP, “the South China Sea holds one third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity and provides about ten percent of the world’s catch

Anyhow, nine dash line is at the heart of SCS dispute when insights of this dispute are required. When analyzing the strategic features of SCS, resources are also needed to be assessed as pointed out by Mahan. As far as resources are concerned, the SCS is among the most resource-rich seas of the world. According to American Security Project (ASP), “though total estimates vary, the region is thought to contain oil reserves of at least 7.7 billion proven barrels, with more optimistic estimates reaching as high as 213 billion barrels.” While estimating the reservoirs of natural gasin the SCS, American Society Project was of the view, “natural gas might be the most abundant and sought-after hydrocarbon resource in the South China Sea. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 266 trillion cubic feet and make up about 60-70 percent of the region’s hydrocarbon resources.”

In catchingsea foods in the SCS, more than half of the world’s fishing vessels are operating in the sea for fish food because millions of people in the region depend on sea food.According to the estimates of ASP, “the South China Sea holds one third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity and provides about ten percent of the world’s catch. Major marine species include hairtail, chub mackerel, black scraper, anchovy, shrimps, crabs and smaller fishes.” ASP further noted “40% of the stocks are collapsed or overexploited and 70% of the coral reefs are heavily depleted. Overfishing and destructive practices such as dynamite and cyanide fishing primarily contribute to this depletion”. Regardless of the fact that depletion of fishing resources inthe SCS continues unabatedly, it is still a resource-rich sea in the light of what Mahan has suggested earlier.

As Kaplan rightfully called out the SCS as ‘defining battleground in 21st century’, the sea has potential for shaping the future regional maritime order. Similar to other South East Asian nations, the USAhas takena confrontational position against China by challenging its claims to keep the waters free for navigation. China, with its changing military policy and shifting its focus from continental to naval strategy by deemphasizing the land operations, is bent on building artificial islands in the SCS. This implies how strategically important the sea is for China despite the fact that such policies have sparked the Sino-American conflict in the western Pacific. Disputes, overlapping claims of South East Asian nations over the sea and much debated legal status of the SCS endorse the claims of Kaplan. The strategic utility of the sea, as obvious from the legal battles and ownershipdisputes, can also be viewed from an academic lensbrought forth by Mahan. Indeed, the SCS has potential for influencing the maritime world order by shaping the regional order in South East Asia.

The writer is Research Fellow at Maritime Study Forum and an Advocate of Islamabad High Court

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