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China has controversially seized control of much of the South China Sea due to its Nine Dash-Line claim, a demarcation for what the country believes to be its waters. The South China Sea is hotly contested because of its lucrative shipping lanes, capacity for strategic military advantages and wealth of natural resources such as oil and minerals. At the centre of this disagreement are various island clusters such as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. China has had particularly tense relations with Vietnam and the Philippines over islands in the region.
Island claims are important because, under UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) negotiated in the Seventies and Eighties, there are no provisions granting ownership of waters without regard to land-based sovereign rights.
Also crucial is the impact of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) of respective countries, something which China has not always respected.
Oriana Skylar Mastro, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University, highlights that China has become more aggressive in the region.
He said in May: “To date, conflict has largely been avoided because China has used primarily economic and diplomatic coercive measures to expand and consolidate its control over the South China Sea.
“In recent months, however, China has begun to rely more heavily on military means to aggressively assert China’s claims.”
More concerning – a report released in February claimed that a Chinese Navy ship pointed its “fire control radar” at a Philippine Navy ship off Commodore Reef in the Spratly Islands, though China denies the claim.
China has been accused of capitalising on the global coronavirus crisis to assert further dominance in the South China Sea, as the US aims to halt Beijing’s ambitions in the region.
Washington made the accusation in April as multiple sources reported that Chinese forces stepped up patrols and naval exercises in the contested waters.
The US Department of State said in a statement: “We call on the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded: “There is nothing to support the claim that China is using COVID-19 to expand its presence in the South China Sea.”
He added: “It has come to our attention that some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War.”
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This warning echoes the sentiment made by expert Professor Kerry Brown, who told Express.co.uk last November that the communication between Chinese and American forces was worse than during the Cold War when the US had tensions with the Soviet Union.
He said: “At the moment dialogue between the US and China military to military is poor, some people say that it’s worse than between the USSR and the US during the Cold War.”
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