DISEC Topic 3 – Issue Briefing Pack

Topic 3 – The Question of the South China Sea: How should the UN deal with the issue of freedom of maritime navigation?

South China Sea 

The claims for the Nine Dash Line can be traced back to 1947, just two years after the chaotic Second Sino-Japanese war, and two years prior to Mao’s ascent. His seizing of power in 1949 marks a historical shift in Chinese history, and the adoption of profoundly ideological parameters as a way to reinvigorate nationwide progress and development. 

China’s claims to territory within the Nine Dash Line have obvious geostrategic motivations, given the vast amounts of natural oil reserves, as well as an international body of water carrying around $3 trillion worth of trade. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Nine Dash Line clearly contravenes international law and restricts the rights of other nations in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. 

To further cement their position within the South China Sea, China has been building islands in recent years – a quintessential example of this is the Spratly Islands. Confrontations between the nations remain limited, but diplomatic tensions seemingly grow. Some incidents have seen local fleets of fishermen being physically destroyed by Chinese warships trawling the South China Sea in acts of domination. In 2018, Mike Pompeo said “The US is a Pacific nation and we remain committed to ASEAN centrality under our Indo-Pacific strategy”. The US seem to be keen to retain the free movement of goods and individuals: recent escalations in the strait of Hormuz exemplify this commitment. 

Key Players

Vietnamese government – A recent group of Vietnamese experts have advised the government to sue the Chinese government in the International Court for violating their sovereign waters, and in particular, their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). To date, they seem to be the only government (except the US) to have openly criticised China’s imperialistic stance – others are seemingly more complacent, in the hope of gaining Chinese concessions. Many observers conclude that such even dynamics are forcing the US to take a more aggressive stance, feeling let down by their traditional allies such as the Philippines or Japan.

Chinese Government – Xi Jinping has carried out a very aggressive policy in the South China Sea, seeing it as a pragmatic way for China to secure its trade routes and gain a more significant global standing. Since 2013, 3000 acres of land have been ‘created’ by way of artificial islands in the sea, which then often become military bases or physical obstructions to other countries’ sovereign waters. Nevertheless, looking at the Chinese government’s stance on Hong Kong protests could evidence their aim to retain a more pacifist image in the wake of their new projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative.  

The United States – As mentioned above, the US has an increasingly abrasive stance on the issue – Mike Pompeo once said confrontations were now inevitable, and perhaps within the next 10 years. The danger is exacerbated by the ongoing US v. China trade war, which evidences their evidently dissimilar ideological stances on free trade. This seemingly resembles the ‘Game of Chicken’, where both leaders need to retain credibility in their home countries for their respective reasons. The real danger in this scenario is that a seemingly benign confrontation could lead to escalation, given they are both motivated to evidence their superpower status and amass more credibility. 

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – the block of Southeast Asian nations is avid to shift and alter the current situation and strike more comprehensive agreements between the various countries affected. Many have argued that ‘regional arrangements with regional characteristics’ should supercede international laws, such as UN directives, because they fail to encompass Asian cultural values.