The ongoing conflict and tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) are showing no signs of ending. Rather, a series of incidents on May 25 led the G7 to express concern over China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Sea where Beijing has disputes with Japan, Taiwan and several South-East Asian nations. The announcement was preceded by the interception of an American reconnaissance aircraft by a Chinese fighter aircraft on May 17, which Beijing has denied, and followed thereafter with US President Barack Obama lifting a decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam which has major disputes with China in the Sea.
Earlier in March, a Chinese coast guard ship forcibly freed a Chinese fishing vessel being towed by an Indonesian coast guard ship after it was allegedly caught fishing in Indonesia’s territorial waters near the Natuna Islands. In February, evidence emerged that China has deployed missile launchers and fighter jets on an island in the Sea, a region considered among the world’s most heavily militarised and which accounts for the passage of about 35 per cent of the world’s sea trade pegged annually at about $5 trillion. The SCS, a semi-enclosed sea, is the world’s only region with several active multiple claimants of sovereignty, incidents of occupation and fortification with maritime zones overlapping each other, thus making it both difficult to resolve and more volatile. The disputed islands and archipelagos can be classified into four groups — (i) Paracel islands, comprising 130 small coral islands and reefs located in the northern part of the Sea and distributed over 15,000 sq km, claimed by Vietnam, China and Taiwan. China forcibly took these islands from Vietnam in 1974 and since then controls all of the Paracel Islands. (ii) Spratly islands, located in the centre of the sea and comprising 750 islands, reefs, islets, atolls, claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam in its entirety and by the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia in part; (iii) Pratas islands, located 200 miles south of Hong Kong, claimed by China and Taiwan and (iv) the Scarborough Reef, located 130 miles from the Philippine island of Luzon, claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Malaysia has built structures on Investigator Shoal and on the Erica Reef in the Spratly archipelago, while Vietnam has upgraded its structures on Cornwallis South Reef and Alison Reef in the middle of the Spratly area. The Philippines has filed five claims against China pertaining to Beijing’s nine-dash-line, sovereignty rights, freedom of navigation and the legal status of several maritime features adjacent to Scarborough Shoal and Johnson Reef.