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Deepening tension in South China Sea region

Deepening tension in South China Sea region
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Deepening tension in South China Sea region

Highlights

China has drilled deep in the South China Sea to retrieve sediment core from the seabed, amid tensions over disputed waters with rival claimants Taiwan and the Philippines, even as the United States increases its naval presence in the region.

China has drilled deep in the South China Sea to retrieve sediment core from the seabed, amid tensions over disputed waters with rival claimants Taiwan and the Philippines, even as the United States increases its naval presence in the region. Chinese scientists on a marine research vessel used China's homemade Sea Bull II drilling system to obtain a sediment core 231 metres (757 feet) long at a depth of 2,060m (6,760ft), the official Xinhua news agency has reported.

The system can help explore natural gas hydrate resources in the seabed, Xinhua added, referring to the solid ice-like crystals formed from a mixture of methane and water that are touted as a promising source of energy. It was unclear exactly where the drilling took place in the South China Sea, approximately 90 percent of which is claimed by Beijing as its territorial waters. Beijing often invokes its so-called "nine-dash line" to justify its claims over most of the South China Sea but the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague has declared that claim as without legal basis.

But, it has been so with China which treats all neighbours with contempt and lays claims to neighbours' lands and waters. Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei also lay claim to parts of the sea, which has vast oil and gas potential in the region. One-third of the world's trade estimated at more than $3 trillion passes through the South China Sea annually. Several countries, including the US have expressed concern at the renewed tensions in the region. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty obliges both parties to support each other in the event of an incursion by external parties. Canada, Australia, Japan and others have also voiced concern about China's intentions.

In 1995, China also started to build a fishing shelter in Mischief Reef, only to expand the facility and reclaim land – turning it into their largest naval and airbase in the South China Sea. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) have been on the rise. This is mainly for China's continued assertive actions and for the sharp deterioration in US-China relations over China's massive territorial claims in the SCS. Tensions in the SCS have risen sharply in recent times, especially in the past few weeks given the general deterioration in the relations between the US and China.

What would be worthwhile here is to weigh this ongoing turf war and its impact on the others. An example of this was the conducting of naval exercises by both the US and China in the disputed area around the same time as was seen in July 2020. What has been the impact of this US-China spat on the South China Sea issue? Has the US- China clash helped the Southeast Asian claimant countries in handling the dispute in a better way? Or have these countries been stuck in the middle of this big power rivalry? What stand should the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries be taking in this ongoing US-China tussle regarding the South China Sea dispute?

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