Territorial disputes are common in the international community. Traditionally, these disputes are even regarded as the most common sources of war. In Asia, specifically, territorial disputes remain a huge challenge to the stability, peace, and prosperity of the region. Usually, territorial disputes are centred on the possession of natural resources, such as mineral, petroleum resources, fertile farmland, rivers, and marine resources. That being said, they can also be driven by religion, culture, and ethnic nationalism.
Over the recent decade, one territorial dispute has been particularly threatening the stability and peace of the Asian region — the South China Sea dispute, which is also referred to as the West Philippine Sea Conflict. This conflict involves maritime claims by several countries, such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. However, two states have particularly brought the issue to the realm of international law, namely China and the Philippines. This article provides a brief overview of the controversial dispute in the South China Sea and how it is currently affecting other Asian countries, specifically Singapore.
A Brief Overview of the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea Conflict
The South China Sea or West Philippine Sea conflict began when China started claiming sovereignty over the maritime area and its trillion cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of untapped oil, which contradicted the claims of other countries, namely Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These countries began claiming islands and different zones in the South China Sea as early as the 1970s.
Between China and the Philippines, particularly, the subject of their long-standing territorial dispute is the Spratly Islands, which is a group of around 7,500 islands and reefs rich in natural resources like oil. This group of islands is strategically situated along major trade routes, which also makes it a valuable territory for fishing. Although the other countries also lay claim to the Spratly Islands, China and the Philippines are particularly the adamant ones that even brought their dispute before the Arbitral Tribunal for international adjudication.
China mainly anchors its claims over the islands on the so-called “nine-dash line,” which first emerged in 1947 atlases. According to China, the nine-dash line is a historical demarcation of its continental shelf, even though the line itself does not have fixed coordinates. At present, this line, which appears in Chinese maps, claims most of the South China Sea as part of the national boundary of China and asserts China’s sovereignty over the islands within the adjacent waters.
On the other hand, the Philippines primarily bases its contention that it has the right to fish and exploit other resources in the West Philippines on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is considered the “Constitution for the Oceans.” In contradicting China’s claims, the Philippines argued that the nine-dash line has no basis under international law since the UNCLOS provides every coastal state with an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), not a nine-dash line.
In 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration promulgated a historic ruling, which issued a unanimous award mostly favourable to the Philippines. However, China has consistently rejected the ruling, arguing that the Arbitral Tribunal had no jurisdiction over the case since its acceptance of dispute settlement under the UNCLOS excluded the determination of historical titles and sea boundary delimitations. Nevertheless, for many countries, specifically the Philippines, the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal is a stepping-stone towards a peaceful resolution of the decades-long territorial dispute.
Singapore: A Neutral Country Caught Up in an International Conflict
Singapore and the South China Sea are not geographically near each other. As such, the country has no claim to any part of the disputed maritime area. If that is so, then how does the South China Sea conflict affect Singapore? The answer mainly lies in ensuring economic stability and continued peace within the Asian region. The impact of the South China Sea dispute on Singapore is, therefore, economic and political in nature.
Historically, the long-standing conflict in the South China Sea has already affected many countries, even those that are not a claimant to any disputed part of the maritime area, such as Singapore. Territorial disputes, especially outright naval confrontations, could be destabilising and impact businesses in Asia. Since Singapore is home to the largest port in Southeast Asia and whose economy relies on continued free navigation in the maritime area, it could possibly suffer more serious economic impacts if the South China Sea conflict continues to escalate.
Nonetheless, Singapore’s stand on the South China Sea dispute has been constantly neutral from the beginning. In 2012, for instance, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made it very clear that the country decided not to take sides on the issue. However, it joined other countries in calling for a de-escalation of the tensions in the maritime area, reminding that territorial disputes can disrupt years of economic progress and peace in Asia. For many years, Singapore’s South China Sea policy has been fairly consistent, and it has always emphasised that it will not succumb to pressure from other states to side with its territorial claims.
Singapore’s South China Sea policy can be summarised in a single sentence: “Remain neutral and relevant while seeking peace and stability.” The country essentially wants to maintain its strict neutrality as a non-claimant state while playing a significant role in the maintenance of stability in the South China Sea and contributing to the peaceful resolution of the territorial dispute at the same time. In other words, Singapore’s position on the South China Sea conflict is active rather than passive neutrality.
Truthfully so, Singapore continues not to explicitly take sides on the territorial dispute to this day. However, it has been making statements and taking actions that seek the maintenance of peace, stability, security, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. In September 2022, for example, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a joint statement wherein they underscored the importance of a peaceful resolution of disputes, which means that they condemn parties from resorting to the use of force or threat in accordance with international law, specifically the UNCLOS.
For some political analysts, there are prudent reasons behind Singapore’s stand on the South China Sea dispute. For one, as a small country, Singapore believes that small countries like itself and the Philippines have no ability to negotiate fairly with big countries like China because of unequal standings. As such, it is best to encourage norms that will be favourable to small countries, such as the resolution of international disputes according to international law.
Furthermore, Singapore has already successfully resolved an international conflict (i.e., the maritime disputes regarding the Pedra Branca with Malaysia) once through the International Court of Justice. Hence, it encourages other countries to follow by example, and this will ultimately promote the international stature of Singapore as a peace-making country.
Territorial disputes, such as the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea conflict, are truly destabilising. They can negatively affect the economic stability and peace within a region, as proven by history numerous times already. For this reason, it is quite understandable why countries like Singapore choose to take a neutral stand on international disputes while actively promoting the use of peaceful resolutions of conflict in accordance with international law. Singapore’s position on the South China Sea dispute is not just wise but necessary as well.
Because the further effects of the South China Sea dispute on Singapore and other Asian countries could be enormous, it is important for these non-party states to take steps to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict without necessarily gathering against any party so as not to trigger another potential world war. Although it might still be too early to say this, it seems as if Singapore and the South China Sea conflict will only be able to achieve a favourable future if more and more countries maintain active neutrality in the midst of increasing tension.
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