The territorial claims of the countries bordering the South China Sea have led to a military escalation. In addition to navies strengthening, military bases are being established on various islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, raising fears of maritime security deterioration in the area.
South China Sea, what is happening ?
While incidents are multiplying in the South China Sea, involving the increasingly active Chinese fishing fleets, commercial trade vessels, but also military ships and maritime militias patrolling the area, maritime security is at the heart of the international community’s concerns (In 2018, the Vietnam National Border Committee counted 42 fishing incidents with China, involving 44 boats and 280 Chinese fishermen).
Maritime security “consists of taking into account navigation-related risks as well as security issues that is ensuring protection against malicious acts aimed at ships”.
With Sino-American tensions in the background, the South China Sea is a contested area. Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the “nine-dash line” since 1947, asserting the enclosed space is historical heritage. However, the islands within this zone are also claimed by other countries: Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam for the Spratlys, and only Vietnam for the Paracels.
The July 12th 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague (PCA) emphasizes that Beijing has no historical rights in the South China Sea and that “China has violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines in its exclusive economic zone.”
Since 2014, Beijing has increased the number of its warships to defend its interests. In 2020, it became the world’s largest military fleet in terms of combat force units. In parallel, China has undertaken the reclamation and militarization of some islets, building airstrips, hangars, logistics hubs, radar stations, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile batteries in low-lying areas.
Faced with this increasing arsenal in the area, bordering countries remain helpless. They have neither the military capabilities nor the financial means to deal with a direct conflict with Beijing, which is skilfully using its influence to promote its interests. The relationship between China and the ASEAN countries (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is thus tending to be strengthened in economic matters, particularly so that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP) can come into force as soon as possible. The “New Silk Roads” are also an opportunity for Beijing to create dependence among the countries receiving Chinese capital and to impose its model in this part of the world.
How to preserve the freedom of navigation ?
This manoeuvre of intimidation towards the littoral countries is however denounced by the international community. The reclamation and militarization of the islets are considered as an obstacle to the freedom of navigation in this zone. Yet this freedom is a constituent element of the Indo-Pacific strategies of Western nations, which regularly assert their freedom of navigation’s rights in these disputed areas, from the Taiwan Strait in the north to the Spratly archipelago in the south. In February 2021, two U.S. naval air groups patrolled the South China Sea. As for France, it sent a nuclear submarine, accompanied by a logistics ship,to patrol the area, in order to “enhance knowledge and reaffirm that international law is the only rule that applies, regardless of the sea we sail in,” French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly said on Twitter.
The Western manoeuvres proved that maritime security has not been breached for the moment, but remains threatened. Indeed, neighbouring countries cannot counter China’s hegemonic expansion by themselves. The regular presence of Western navies seems necessary to avoid a definitive hindrance of the zone by Beijing, as long as the evolution of its legal status allows it.