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Politics & Law

Control over South China Sea: its historical burden and future


China has built a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea

Control over the sea waters relies heavily on relative technological superiority because, unlike the control over a piece of land, you cannot simply station a large quantity of soldiers on the water surface permanently, nor settling civilians on it.

Therefore, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines wisely points out that the competition for controlling the South China Sea (SCS) and the sea routes therein is essentially between the stronger powers.

China’s island-building is, he says, “really intended for those who China thinks will destroy them and that is America. We are not part of it … Ignore the missiles there. They are not for us.”

Cambridge University Professor Peter Nolan, in his 2014 book [Note 1], tells us one major rationale behind China’s ‘militarization’ in the the SCS is that China is threatened by other strong powers in the region. Nolan’s research shows that “in and around the Pacific Ocean … The colossal resource grab by the former colonial powers arises from the ‘scattered remnants’ of tiny territories that they still retain from their former empires. This process has almost entirely escaped international attention.”

Despite the West’s decolonization 1940-80s, these powers retained many tiny islands worldwide. Then, in 1982, “the United Nations enacted a ‘revolutionary’ piece of legislation, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which allows countries to establish an ‘exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles from their coastline.” By taking advantages of this law, the Western powers have the legal ground to claim certain control over the sea waters around their tiny islands all over the world in general and Pacific Ocean in particular.

Professor Nolan found that in the Pacific Ocean, for example, the UK ‘owns’ 47 sq km land area from the islands and has the right to 836,000 sq km EEZ, France: 22,937 sq km land and 6,879,000 sq km EEZ, USA: 29,602 sq km land and 5,804,000 sq km EEZ. China, however, has “less than 2 million sq km of EEZ in the SCS”, much less than France’s and USA’s.

In other words, the sphere of sea area and the sea routes that can be monitored and controlled by China is not comparable to its increasing need for transportation security, let alone military consideration. A technologically backward China of course had no say, but nowadays, Beijing believes that it has possessed the necessary technology to enter into this game despite a heavy load of historical burden.

From the view point of Realism, the major school of thought in International Relations (IR), the power struggle for dominance in the SCS will inevitably intensify, and the militarization here will upgrade to a more dangerous level in the coming decades. By applying the ‘International Society’ IR school of thought which was advocated by Hedley Bull beginning in the 1970s, there is still a chance for peaceful co-existence if the strategists in Beijing, Washington and London are willing to accept that all peoples share the same human nature of seeking for a sense of security. The chance for the latter to materialize, unfortunately, is getting slim because some neighboring nations seem to be doing something to provoke a fight, rather than promoting a deal.

[Note 1]
See Chapter 5 in Peter Nolan (2014), “Re-balancing China: essays on the Global Financial Crisis, Industrial Policy and International Relations”, London, New York, Delhi : Anthem Press.

The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China Daily Mail.

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About keith K C Hui

Keith K C Hui is a Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate major in Government and Public Administration and the author of "Helmsman Ruler: China's Pragmatic Version of Plato's Ideal Political Succession System In The Republic" (2013).

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