South china sea is an arm of the western Pacific Ocean in southeast Asia, south of china, east and south of Vietnam and west of the Philippine and north of the island of Borneo. It is a region of tremendous economic and geostrategic importance. There are overlapping claims by these rim states over the sovereignty of the South China Sea. Also, the region is a perpetual theatre of war as the superpower US has shifted its focus towards the Pacific region, and it aims to maintain the freedom of navigation in the region. At the same time, China holds this region to be its exclusive economic zone. All these claims and counterclaims, the region has become a flashpoint of war as the concerned states are flexing muscles and militarizing the water. Pakistan which sits away from the region might not escape from the effect of any conflict in the region.
The sea is transit for trade through water; this makes it of great value. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), about one-third of global maritime trade makes its way through the south China sea. Forty percent of the total trade of LNG gas passes through the South China sea. It joins the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca, which is the critical choking point on the world map.
The disruption in South China sea may choke this strait affecting global trade.
The region is significant not only for the regional countries but also for the great powers – the US and China. South China sea is like a backyard for China. China is energy stressed country. It imports most of its energy resources- most of these resources pass through the sea and hence the South China sea. Any disturbance in the South China Sea can disrupt the flow of energy to China, affecting the economic growth of China. China also sees the region very crucial for its security. Controlling the South China Sea means controlling one of the entrances to Asia. China, in this regard, operates at the position of strength and keeps on carrying out military drills in the region and constructing military bases.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea based on the nine-dash line. It has built artificial islands – Spratly and Paracel- and claims all of the seas as its exclusive economic zone. This claim is contended by other regional states like Philippine, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan. They believe that China is encroaching their exclusive economic zones. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Law of Sea, the claimed regions belong to them. Philippine took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016. The award of court supported the Philippine claim, China, although being the signatory of the treaty of Court of Arbitration, refused to accept the award.
The region is not only crucial for rim states but also the superpower like the US. It wants to maintain the freedom of navigation in the region and police it. The US announced its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy in 2012, and Obama claimed to be the first Pacific president. The purpose of the policy was to increase the presence in the pacific region and counter the rise of China. The US supports the claims of the other contending states. The policy aims to rebalance Asia and hinder the growing influence of China in the pacific region. It is for this reason the US is strengthening its alliances with regional states like Japan, Vietnam and Australia. The US recently convinced Australia to police the region along with it. Vietnam carried out a live military drill last month to consolidate its right over the sea. The US also carries out military exercises to maintain Freedom of Navigation in the region. This many times has made both states stand eye to eye in the waters.
It can be said that the South China Sea is one of a bone of contentions between two superpowers- China and the US. It is the most likely that in case of any misadventure between these states, Pakistan may be affected one way or the other way. Pakistan has a friendly and reliable relationship with China. It has stood with Pakistan through thick and thin. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one way for China to reduce its dependence on the South China Sea. In case of conflict China might be depending on this corridor for its energy needs.
Similarly, Pakistan also shares a strategic relationship with highs and lows. Pakistan is working with the US on the Afghanistan peace process. In case of conflict in the South China sea, Pakistan may have to take sides. It cannot afford to leave its friend China neither can it anger the US – picking up a feud with the US means making western border hostile and economic restrictions.
In brief, South China is not just a territorial dispute; it is a geostrategic dispute as well. The contenders of the said waters are not just the regional states but the global power as well. The frequent military exercises by competing states may aggravate the situation, and any miscalculation may act as a spark to start an eternal fire. And in that case, Pakistan might want to sit on the fence; therefore, when the situation arises, it has to be vigilant and think through its position prudently.