Looming Court Verdict Puts Beijing’s South China Sea Claims in Spotlight

Beijing has been accused of militarizing the South China Sea after creating artificial islands. (Image: TomoNews US via YouTube/Screenshot)
Beijing has been accused of militarizing the South China Sea after creating artificial islands. (Image: TomoNews US via YouTube/Screenshot)

Beijing says it is entitled to most of the South China Sea, a 1.4-million-square-mile chunk of open ocean critical to world commerce where over $5 trillion of maritime trade passes through each year. It is also resource rich and strategically important.

To back up claims that stretch 1,200 miles from its own shoreline, Beijing has been busy turning atolls and rocky outcrops into islands that are being militarized, according to a recent Pentagon report.

Through its island building efforts, Beijing has created 3,000 acres of new territory on seven reefs. As part of that they have built three airstrips.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have contesting claims in the area, but what Beijing is belligerently doing dwarfs all of their efforts combined.

The global concern is that China’s land reclamation efforts have turned the region into a potential conflict zone. This week Chinese fighter jets unsafely intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace over the South China Sea. See this TomoNews US video for more on what occurred:

China’s ruling Communist Party says its South China Sea claim is historical and based on the so-called “nine-dash line” which shows the extent of its ocean territory. It’s a claim that most experts say has no legal weight.

China is a party to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that charter provides “no legal basis” for Beijing’s claim, said Alessio Patalano, senior lecturer in Naval History and East Asian Security at King’s College London.

Patalano added that Beijing’s moves also have no historical precedent.

“There is not a precedent of this kind, and this is for two reasons,” Patalano told CNBC.

“First until recently, technology didn’t allow nation states to project power over the oceans as it is possible today,” he said.

“Second, today’s degree of interdependence has no precedent in history, therefore issues over the ability of shipping to move through this basin has potential impact on the international system in a way that was not possible previously,” Patalano added.

The Philippines contends that Beijing’s claims are invalid under international law and have taken their case to The Hague.

The UN’s Law of the Sea grants a state a 12 nautical mile territorial sea where they are in principle free to “enforce any law, regulate any use and exploit any resource.” A state is also allowed an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from its coast and oversees territorial sea rights to features defined as “rocks” and “low tide elevations”.

Beijing’s island building efforts, on what the Philippines declares are low-tide elevations, are an attempt to produce territorial rights on features which, that under the law, do not have them, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

A ruling on the matter is expected to be given from a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration later this month. The case is expected to go in favor of the Philippines. Hence why Beijing has long said that it rejects the court’s authority.

So the question remains: how will Beijing react to the court’s findings? Either way, no one is expecting them to dismantle their artificial islands anytime soon.

See this INQUIRER.net video about the Pentagon report on Chinese military developments:

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