Seas have acquired unparalleled importance in modern times owing to their trade routes and rich resource base. The territorial claims of sovereignty over the various unclaimed and disputed regions are thus on the rise, fueling further conflict, friction and chances of the potential outbreak of violence. The South China Sea and its island chains are experiencing rising escalation and tension first-hand. The situation as it is in the South China Sea is very alarming owing to the power imbalance in the region. This shifted axis of power is concerning for the smaller states in Southeast Asia and a major threat to their territorial sovereignty.
China’s claim to the island chains is not new and has been there for a few decades now. The history of the claim can be traced to a map published at the request of the Kuomintang government based on the maps drawn by some private firms and cartographic books, the Map of the South Sea Islands, issued in 1947. The 9-Dash Line used by China to claim their historical right was drawn as a part of this map to illustrate the territorial extent of China. The Chinese claim at that time was though limited to small scattered islands in the South China Sea. The position of the Kuomintang government on territorial extent was adopted by the mainland government in China, and not having any background information on this, it maintained the islands within the 9-Dash Line: Nansha (Spratly), Sheesha (Paracel) and Zhongsha (an imaginary island group which has no physical existence and is actually a misinterpretation of Macclesfield Bank, a submerged feature in the South China Sea). China has never been able to justify the claim to these island groups primarily as they have never exercised sovereignty over them over an extended period of time and also due to the existence of non-factual and imaginary claims over fictitious islands.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has clearly defined laws to define coastal and maritime boundaries, and per its laws, a 200 Nautical Mile Sea Floor as a part of the Continental Shelf of a State, with exclusive rights reserved for all individual states. Things began to get serious in 2009 when all of the countries in Southeast Asia implemented UNCLOS and aligned their respective claims and jurisdictions in accordance with international law. China reacted badly to UNCLOS as they knew if UNCLOS was implemented their claim to the international China Sea would be defunct, and thereby China began the program to strengthen its presence and activity in the South China Sea, leading to more friction between China and smaller states. The situation worsened when China began to interfere in the special economic zones of smaller states and escalations were reported closer to the coasts of smaller states. The incident at Scarborough Shoal, a standoff between the Philippines and China, is one of the recent examples of the rising escalations and conflicts, and Chinese attempts to exercise jurisdictional rights as per the 9-Dash Line.