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Chinese Maritime Disputes & Escalating Tensions in the South China Sea

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The protracted trade war, accusation of the Covid-19 outbreak, and increasing military activities in the South China Sea had been contributing to a new conflict and military confrontation between the USA and China. This will explicitly aggravate the peaceful negotiations for regional stability and bilateral nexus.

The course of animosity between both countries did not begin recently; they’ have been recriminating one another for incessant trade war and novel Covid-19 to justify their stance at domestic and international levels. China realistically claims the South China Sea (SCS) as an inalienable part of Chinese territory by exercising domestic maritime law over these disputed zones/islands. China vindicates its claim using various techniques: giving historical facts, reclaiming land, building infrastructure, militarizing the islands, using diplomatic influence, and legal instruments. However, this leads to nothing except triggering a severe military confrontation with the USA.

Noticeably, the territorial maritime disputes in the SCS are under serious consideration by the international community. The presence of massive hydrocarbon reserves, strategic location, important sea route for global trade, conflicting sovereignty claims of Islands, and the busiest sea lanes of communications in the sea, have encouraged all regional states to consolidate their position against China to get maximum leverage.

The legality of Chinese claim and expansion of assertive Chinese influence in the South China Sea raised severe concerns for regional stability. To strengthen territorial claims over SCS, China initiated an administrative project to build infrastructure over major islands like Spratly and Paracel Islands. Such provocative tactics are considered as a source of an increase in military escalation in the South China Sea. This maritime region is strategically vital for world trade, and the USA perceived the Chinese assertiveness behaviour and plausible geographical changes as a threat to American interests and its western allies. China neither accepts the applicability of international law of seas upon this particular region, nor respects the sovereign right of other ASEAN states to access SCS for exploration. The Chinese government is trying to consolidate its position by declaring two administrative regions/districts. Additionally, Beijing’s military modernization in this maritime zone will strengthen the Chinese stance over the South China Sea.

The other claimants of these disputed islands are Southeast Asian countries, which are retaliating against illegal Chinese claim. It is assumed that ASEAN members are blocking the negotiations to establish a maritime regulatory body in the South China Sea; they’re committed to convincing international organizations to take legal action against Beijing at a regional and international level. In addition to this, US-Chinese relations continue to spiral downward, because US administration is impeding the Chinese territorial claim over these contested areas. Moreover, the US military consistently increased its navigation operations in China’s exclusive economic zones as allowed under the international law of seas.

Such kind of activities led to a decrease in strategic military engagement and cooperation between both states. If the trade and technological war continues, it is inevitable that it would increase military confrontation and strategic competition in the East Asian region. In case of any significant obstruction, China will fight back against the USA to justify its claim. To dislodge American influence in the East Asian region, China could stretch its muscles by reorganizing the disputed islands to consolidate its position. Similarly, the USA would strive to use coercive and aggressive means to prevent Beijing from changing the status quo.

Furthermore, China deployed its military vessels to avert East Asian states, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, from exploring hydrocarbon resources; this turned into significant impasse between them. It seems conspicuous that conducting provocative military exercises prevent regional states from using territorial water, and having an aggressive stance against naval vessels would ultimately lead to an inevitable conflict in the region, which might undermine regional stability. The South China Sea, being one of the major maritime trade routes, could interrupt global trade; almost $5.3 trillion worth of goods flow through the South China Sea annually, and approximately 40% of global natural gas pass through this route, which is quite a substantial volume. The South China Sea is considered to be one of the most essential maritime trade routes, and most of the world's major economies are dependent on this route. Approximately 64% of Chinese maritime trade transited through this waterway while almost 42% of Japanese goods pass through this particular passage. The United States is also reliant on the South China Sea because 14% of its maritime trade passes through the region.

If Southeast Asian states decided to accommodate Chinese territorial claims over the South China Sea, Beijing could control East Asian nations’ access to these waters, which would give China an unprecedented amount of leverage against its neighbours, many of whom are US treaty allies. Besides, it is also apparent that through these coercive means, China is striving to change the balance of power in the East Asian region, and it could urge Russia to support Chinese territorial claim over the South China Sea against the USA and its allies.

If Beijing relies on military modernization drive to achieve its strategic and geopolitical interests, it would ultimately result in military confrontation and a new conflict zone between China and the USA. In short, regional stability and security order can only be maintained by comprehensive diplomatic initiatives among the claimants. To avoid any serious conflict, a peaceful effort will assist both China and the USA to support their bilateral relations for regional stability.