Taiwan is the latest state (recognised or otherwise) to react furiously to an apparent encroachment upon its territory in the South China Sea. Last Thursday, a Taiwanese fisherman was killed by the Philippines coastguard in an area both states claim as their own, as does China.
The South China Sea is the world’s preeminent maritime territorial dispute. Surrounded as it is by a number of littoral states, and within striking distance of China’s enlarging navy, the Sea has been the subject of relentless conflicting claims, all of which can in some way be justified by historical or legal precedent.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) stipulates that any state can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of two hundred kilometres from their coastline. This, unfortunately, is a virtually redundant clause as far as the South China Sea is concerned because it allows for overlapping claims from various states. Add to the fact that China owns the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the Sea and to the south, various claimants control a number of the Spratly Islands, and the EEZ can be effectively extended across the Sea indefinitely.
Taiwan is often overlooked in the South China Sea dispute, yet it claims all of the Paracel Islands and their surrounding ocean, which provide rich fishing grounds and potentially lucrative underwater energy resources. The claims of the Taiwanese government rest partly on UNCLOS and partly on a historical basis; namely, that it was China that first settled the islands of the South China Sea and that Taiwan’s rulers (currently the Kuomintang) are the legitimate representatives of the Chinese people.
Because the KMT has been forced to kowtow somewhat to Chinese wants over the past few years, particularly as economic interdependence between the two has grown, it rarely takes a public stance on the South China Sea issue. Any claims to territory would provoke a furious backlash from Beijing which, for more dubious reasons than the other claimants, believes it should control the whole of the Sea.
It is therefore not surprising that Taiwanese officials have been careful not to couch the latest incident with the Philippines in territorial terms. Arguments have been made on the not unreasonable basis that, regardless of any territorial intricacies, the Philippines coastguard had no justification in riddling an unarmed fishing vessel with more than fifty bullets.
The Philippines, as this incident suggests, have been far more vociferous in the past when staking their claims in the South China Sea. Their navy has had several tense stand-offs with Chinese forces, including at Scarborough Shoal last year, and their government has lobbied the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on a frequent basis to take into consideration Chinese expansionism and neglect of Filipino sovereignty.
With such things as energy security, national sovereignty and prestige at stake, the South China Sea is undoubtedly one of East Asia’s primary security dilemmas. Unnecessary force, such as that shown by the Philippine coastguard, could happen on a larger scale, potentially involving Chinese and American confrontation. The US sees the Asia-Pacific region as one of primary importance and has sought to build alliances with Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines in recent years to counter Chinese influence.
Should an American ally fall victim to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea it is not unthinkable that the two superpowers could come to the brink of conflict, just as intensifying rhetoric and provocation between China and Japan in the East China Sea could force America to choose sides.
Because the South China Sea dispute is also indirectly linked to the historical matter of China’s legitimate rulers, the situation becomes even more anxious. Taiwan may feel constrained to oppose Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea at the moment but future clashes, intentional or otherwise, could spark a larger crisis over Taiwanese statehood and independence.
A waterway of tremendous economic and cultural importance, the South China Sea is at the confluence of a range of historical disputes, not only restricted to physical territory but the notion of statehood. When lone fishermen begin to get gunned down for encroaching on disputed territory, we must hope that the warships of opposing claimants steer well clear of one another otherwise the prospects of war loom large.