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What's going on in the South China Sea?


If you're reading this article, you probably aren't aware of the conflicts happening within the South China Sea, which means I get to teach you something!

As its name implies, the South China Sea is the body of water that sits south of China and between the rest of Southeast Asia. Several trillion dollars in trade passes through it every year, making it a rather important location within Asia and in global maritime trade in general. It is also a region still abundant in oil, gas, and excellent fisheries. All in all, a not insignificant body of water.

So, what's the problem exactly? Well, we are all currently aware of the economic superpower that China has become and the influence the country wields worldwide. Of course, no one's ever happy with what they have, which somewhat leads us to the current situation. That being all of the territorial disputes happening within the South China Sea. While territorial disputes are nothing new for the region in general, for the better part of the last decade, China and the rest of Southeast Asia (specifically Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Brunei) have been squabbling over who has a right to what part of the South China Sea.

Now, since the author (that's me!) is Filipino and grew up in the Philippines, we'll be focusing mainly on the Philippines ' stance and issues when talking about specific conflicts within the region. We'll still talk about the general problems and disputes that the other countries face.

On the map down below, you can see what each country is claiming as part of its territory. China (& Taiwan) is red, Malaysia yellow, Vietnam blue, Brunei green, and the Philippines purple. Each country has its own specific reasoning for their preferred border, but generally, they either follow historical precedent, geographical closeness, rights to their exclusive economic zone, or similar shenanigans.

Roughly in the middle of all this is a set of islands and islet called the Spratly Islands. This bit of maritime territory is extremely rich in natural resources and other goodies. It's like setting an incredibly delicious cake in the middle of a table during a very tense family meeting and everyone wanting it for themselves. It gives you an idea of how big of a headache this whole situation is.

So why is China claiming that they control/have rights over the entire South China Sea and the various island & islets within? Well, they have this very old map which is generally referred to as the nine dash line map, or just the nine dash line. According to them, this map shows historical and ancestral fishing waters, so there is a historical precedent for their claim. Of course, all other countries involved have soundly rejected this claim and any evidence for it. This has been largely supported by the international community.

There is also the fun fact that back in 2016, the Philippines presented to The Permanent Court of Arbitration a case (PCA Case No. 2013-19) which fell under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which essentially states the nine-dash line has no legal standing and that there is no legal basis for historical rights for China. Unfortunately, China chose not to participate in the case and has essentially ignored the ruling. Of course, this does not actually settle the issue of who has sovereignty within the area, but it does, or should really, help to level the playing field so to speak.

Before this happened, there was a symbolic form of push back from the Philippines in the form of Administrative Order (No.29, s.2012), issued by the President of the Philippines. The order states that the maritime territory to the west of the Philippines, within its Exclusive Economic Zone, the baseline of the archipelago, and within the binderies set by the law of the sea.

Since China has largely ignored this ruling, there hasn't been an improvement to the situation. By and large, it has gotten a bit worse. China has in the past few years expanded its maritime power within the region, as well as encouraging their fishing vessels to expand their routes. They have also been steadying creating artificial islands within the area, with some referring to this tactic as the "Great Wall of Sand." Not a wholly inaccurate description, if we're honest.

Of course, the other countries have also had incidents with one another's various coast guards and fishing fleets, so no one is innocent in this situation. Conflict is by no means new in the region, but the situation is still rather stable. But something's got to give sooner or later.

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