Easing geo-economic tensions in the South China Sea

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SummaryWith the leadership change in China and with Obama’s re-election, the world waits to see the new strategic dimensions in issues where the two countries converge and diverge.

With the leadership change in China and with Obama’s re-election, the world waits to see the new strategic dimensions in issues where the two countries converge and diverge. The geopolitical volatility of the South China Sea, which hosts some of the busiest shipping lanes of the world, is one such major issue seeking global attention. This instability is the result of long-standing territorial disputes among states which surrounds it. In fact, there are competing claims by China and some countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over exercising their maritime rights, which ultimately is an effort to control the region’s natural resources.

Interestingly, the Sea itself controls a major chunk of the global maritime trade. Therefore, the whole scenario needs to be revisited in context of its influence on at least three significant stakeholders—the region itself, the US and India.

The region constitutes primarily China and the countries of ASEAN including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, who have been seeking sovereign rights on their respective territorial claims in the Sea for more than three decades. However, the issue of discord is the parallel and competing claims, with states like Vietnam and the Philippines accusing China of violating the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Among the various issues covered under the UNCLOS, like those pertaining to navigation, marine environment protection, transit regimes, and continental shelf (that is, a seabed adjacent to the shore of a state), the one on exclusive economic zones (EEZ) is highly relevant in this context. The EEZ is a sea-zone that in most cases extends upto 200 nautical miles from the coast of a state’s territorial sea. As per the provisions of this Convention, the coastal state shall have special rights and privileges over the use of natural resources in the EEZ.

In a recent development on the issue of EEZ, the Philippines requested the United Nations (UN) to rename a part of South China Sea covering Philippines’ EEZ as the West Philippine Sea. However, it does not seem likely that such a renaming would impact China’s claim on the said territory. Also, there is another framework known as Declaration on Conduct of Parties in South China Sea signed by China and ASEAN in 2002. However, it is also suffering from functional fiasco as they are yet to agree on the code of conduct because China wants the code to be

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