Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea

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The South China Sea has been the subject of a number of conflicting territorial claims for some time. The claims of Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan), Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei all conflict with each other. In recent years the PRC has been the most aggressive in – practically as well as legally –  pushing its claims, based on the historically claimed ‘nine-dash line’. This has resulted in Chinese harassment of other countries’ economic activities in international waters and the rapid militarisation of the region. The PRC has also been constructing artificial islands within the South China Sea, around which the PRC claims territorial waters and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Some of these artificial islands have been fully militarised, thereby increasing the PRC’s ability to exert control over the region. 

In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in a case brought by the Philippines against the PRC. It declared that the nine-dash line did not meet the standard of a historic claim to the waters and that therefore the Chinese claim is unlawful. Furthermore, it ruled that the islands are in fact artificial and therefore do not generate territorial waters or an EEZ for the PRC.

The PRC refused to participate in the proceedings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and has shown no interest in implementing its decision. On the contrary, it continues to expand its presence in the territory. 

The South China Sea represents a critical shipping line for global trade and is of enormous importance to the various member states of ASEAN. It is up to the member states to come up with a collective response against the PRC’s action in the South China Sea.

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