SOUTH CHINA SEA contests between China and the US have seen tensions spiral amid frequent navy patrols in the region as both look to assert a foothold – but Beijing’s strategy could be on the brink of falling apart as its grip on valuable regions comes under threat.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been determined to assert his country’s dominance over the waters and has subsequently tried to enforce the controversial Nine-Dash Line claim in the region. At the centre of the disagreements are various island clusters such as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. Beijing has had particularly tense relations with Vietnam and the Philippines over islands in the region.
China has destroyed natural land in the region and filled the void with colossal aircraft carriers, an environmental cost deemed worth it by Beijing as the Chinese Navy occupies key strategic locations in the South China Sea.
As explained in a report by The Economist, this control in the islands has given Chinese forces resupply checkpoints and the ability to refuel ships without vacating the waters.
But there are concerns that the concrete at the foot of these new island installations is beginning to cave due to the climate in the region leaving their foundations soft like sponge.
Should extreme weather conditions, such as huge typhoons, gather momentum, China’s bases could be damaged further or even destroyed.
This combined with increased resistance to China’s water claims by smaller nations could lead to a substantial hit to Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
The Philippines have already secured backing by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which deemed China’s Nine-Dash Line claim as illegal under international law.
And now, with Vietnam also vulnerable to encroachment into its economic exclusion zone, Hanoi is considering a similar route in an attempt to thwart Xi Jinping.
While Vietnam has previously flirted with the idea of going to the international courts, it has now become a realistic threat.
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In an address last month, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Le Hoai Trung, made reference to Vietnam potentially pursuing international legal arbitration to manage the South China Sea disputes.
He said: “We know that these measures include fact-finding, mediation, conciliation, negotiation, arbitration and litigation measures.
“The UN Charter and UNCLOS 1982 have sufficient mechanisms for us to apply those measures.”
The explicit mentioning of UNCLOS legislation signifies a significant ramping up of planning of legal action in Hanoi, which could leave China further frustrated.
Given Beijing’s history of disregarding international treaties, any effort to restrict China will have to be coherent and persistent if any success is to come from it.
The move could also further intensify the tensions between China and Vietnam, which have boiled over leading to tragic consequences on multiple occasions.
Vietnam’s anger has been provoked by a recent three months long standoff in its economic exclusion zone as China sent the Haiyang Dizhu 8 oil vessel for exploration of natural resources.
However, the US has stepped in to help the Vietnamese who have previously been reluctant to cooperate with second countries due to their ‘Three Noes’ foreign policy – no alliances, no bases, and no working with a second country against a third.
Washington has agreed to give Vietnam a coastal patrol cutter in an effort to bolster Hanoi’s ability to thwart Chinese encroachment.
Smaller nations aided by the US continue to ramp up their resistance and striking yet more blows to China’s quest for dominance in the South China Sea.