Contention over South China Sea

Places in news: Whitsun Reef

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Whitsun Reef

Mains level : South China Sea Row

China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea has found a new ground, Whitsun Reef, where 220 Chinese vessels are currently anchored under the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Once again, the South China Sea finds itself closer to becoming a security flashpoint amidst rising concerns over a military conflict.

Also, try this:

Q.Recently, Senkaku Island was in the news. Where is it located?

a) South China Sea

b) Indian Ocean

c) East China sea

d) Red sea

Whitsun Reef

  • Whitsun Reef is a reef at the northeast extreme limit of the Union Banks in the Spratly Islands of the West Philippine Sea.
  • It is the largest reef of the Union Banks.
  • The reef is V-shaped with an area of about 10 sq. km.
  • Until at least the 1990s it was submerged most of the time and was visible above the water only during the low tide, at other times the reef could be detected due to the pattern of breaking waves.
  • At the end of the 20th-century small sand dunes had developed on the reef making a territorial claim possible (an International Court of Justice judgment in 2012 stated that “low-tide elevations cannot be appropriated”).
  • The development of the dunes could have occurred naturally, but the rumours had it that the island was being built up by Vietnam and China.

Territorial disputes

  • As of 2016, the reef was unclaimed, the reports to the contrary (Chinese control) were based on confusion.
  • However, due to the reef’s strategic importance, it was expected that the reef would be occupied “soon”.
  • On 21 March 2021, about 220 Chinese fishing ships were moored at the reef ostensibly taking shelter due to the sea conditions.

Why is the Philippines concerned?

  • The Philippines considers the reef to be a part of its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf and protested the Chinese presence.
  • Currently, Philippine military aircraft and navy are monitoring the situation daily, and China has been warned that there will be an increased military presence to conduct ‘sovereignty patrols’.
  • If China is successful with its moves, the Philippines may lose another fishing ground, similar to what happened in 2012 when China took control of Scarborough Shoal.

The larger dispute

  • China and the Philippines, along with other Southeast Asian countries, have long been part of disputes over sovereign claims over the region’s islands, reefs and seabeds.
  • A third of the world’s maritime trade travels through the South China Sea annually.
  • The seabeds here are believed to be reserves of oil and natural gas while being home to fisheries essential for the food security of millions in South Asia.
  • The majority of the disputes concern the lack of adherence to the international ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ which stretch up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of any state.
  • China, especially, has been notorious for disregarding the law on various occasions.

What does China have to say?

  • On the present matter, the Chinese have reiterated that the vessels are mere fishing boats seeking shelter from unruly weather, though no bad weather has been reported in the area.
  • It is also unlikely that fishermen would have the financial capital to remain stationary for weeks on end.
  • Experts say through their present occupation, China might be looking to create a civilian base on the reef, an artificial island or even just control the airspace.
  • It is widely assessed that Philippines’s soft approach has further strengthened China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

Back2Basics: South China Sea Row

  • It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.
  • China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims.
  • Alongside the fully-fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
  • China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
  • Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims.
  • It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

Spat over Chinese claims

  • China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols.
  • The US says it does not take sides in territorial disputes but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.
  • Both sides have accused each other of “militarizing” the South China Sea.
  • There are fears that the area is becoming a flashpoint, with potentially serious global consequences.
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