Moreover, countries in the region are largely dependent on marine economy. Maritime security will be crucial to the development and promoting cooperation among countries in Southeast Asia. The problem of maritime security can only be answered if the threats to maritime security was controlled and managed. In an attempt to find the tools to manage threats to maritime security, this paper will focus on the role of the Convention of the United Nations Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS). UNCLOS was selected as a research tool due to the fact that almost all of the littoral states in the South China Sea are already members of the Convention. In addition, legal tools would be most suitable option for small and medium countries like those in Southeast Asia. With this objective, this paper will first explore the threats to maritime security in the South China Sea, analyze the relationship between UNCLOS and the threats, and then examine the role of the Convention in order to control and manage threats to maritime security.


Threats to maritime security in the South China Sea

The term maritime can be used as an adjective to refer to the sea space or can be understood as a field of international relations similar to political, economic, environment, etc. With the latter understanding, maritime security is a relatively narrow term, often used to emphasize security aspects of the use of the sea for the purpose of transportation and commerce. Accordingly, piracy, armed robbery at sea and accidents between vessels area threats to maritime security.[1]With the former reference, sea space is similar to that of the mainland, hence maritime security is a broad term covering a number of security domains from traditional to non-traditional. Due to the spatial characteristicof the sea, maritime security in this sense emphasizes good order at sea. Accordingly, the sea is not only a source of resources, but also an environment for transportation, communication and commerce.[2] Order at sea should be maintained for human development and such order may be under threat from causes such as war, piracy, terrorism, proliferation, drug trafficking, and other illegal acts. The control of threats to maritime security will help ensure security on the mainland, ensure global stability and the maintenance of freedom of navigation would be beneficial to all countries.[3]

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea, containing enriches resources and a hub of important global shipping lanes.[4]Maritime security in the South China Sea is vital not only to the littoral countries but also meaningful for other user states.[5]Despite the wide or narrow interpretation, maritime security in the South China Sea is currently under threat.

Firstly, the use of force and the occurrence of armed conflict in the South China Sea are possible. In the past two years, countries in the South China Sea has been continuously improving and modernizing their military forces, particularly navy. China led the way with increasing huge military budge every year. By 2010, military expenditure of China has risen to USD 78 billions.[6] China specially focused on developing navy forces. It built a nuclear submarine base at Sanya (Hainan Island) and equipped aircraft carrier and other modern weapons. Military strength of China has caused concern to the countries in the region and somehow forced them enter into an arms race in the region. Vietnam plans to buy six Russian-built kilo-class submarines.  Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are each adding two submarines.[7] All these events show that the countries seem prepared for the worst scenario of the use of force and armed conflict in the South China Sea. This assumption has been more imminent when China conducted harassment activities to the seismic survey vessels of coastal states[8] and transmitted the messages that the littoral states should “mental prepare for the sounds of cannons if they remain at loggerheads with Beijing”[9].

Secondly, the right to freedom of navigation of vessels and over flight of aircrafts could be affected. The incidents of EP3 and USNS Impeccable[10] revealed that in the situation of no armed conflict in the South China Sea, the interpretation and application of various legal provisions could still create a negative impact and impede vessels and aircrafts enjoy the freedom of navigation and over flight as provided for under international law. This prospect would even be more serious if armed conflict occurred as a large flow of approximate 41,000 ships, accounting for half of global shipping, annually sail though the South China Sea.[11]

Thirdly is the degradation of the marine environment of the South China Sea, which was consider as one of the highest biodiversity in the tropical seas. The statistic of the environmental programs of the United Nations showed that 80% of coral reefs in the South China Sea are at risk, mainly from human activities. Two-thirds of the major fish species and several of the region’s most important fishing areas are fully or over-exploited by the destructed measures.[12]

Finally, marine environmental degradation and the possibility of armed conflict also directly affect human security. According to incomplete statistics of the Centre for fisheries development in Southeast Asia, the number of fishermen in the region is of over two million people.[13] Fish production needed to serve human consumption and economic development is increasing. Fisheries and fish processing play an important role for the economy of the coastal countries, e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines who are among the world top ten fish exporting countries.[14] Fish in the South China Sea region provides about 25% of the protein necessary for the 500 million people.[15] Meanwhile, with the destroyed coral reefs and mangrove, the habitat environment for fish is endangered. Fishes become smaller in size and fish production is also declined, even extinct species.[16] Moreover, fishing in the region currently has not been well managed. The phenomenon of fishing by using eradication methods such as using poison, causing environmental pollution still occurs. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is not controlled.[17] Disputes among littoral states over fishing rights have led to the arrest and confiscation of fishermen. All these factors show that threats to human security, namely to the livelihoods of fishermen in the coastal states, to the food security from aquatic species in the South China Sea.
Most of the facts illustrated the maritime insecurity of the region derived from direct and indirect activities of the littoral states. Acts of arms race, enhanced law enforcement measures to control maritime zones are the direct cause leading to the threat of armed conflict threatening safety of maritime navigation and over flight, threatening to livelihoods of fishermen. These acts were conducted with the aim at fortifying sovereignty and maritime claims. At the same time, in an indirect way, the lack of control and cooperation on transnational issues such as control pollution sources, conservation of marine species has led to threats to the marine environment and the decline of marine resources.  These acts caused by the fact that the sovereignty and maritime disputes has prevented the parties from cooperation due to the concern of recognizing sovereignty of each other. All in all, the root causes of threats to maritime security in the South China Sea is derived from the sovereignty and maritime claims and directly reflected through activities to reinforce such claims.



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[1]Michael McNicolars, Maritime Security: An introduction, Butterworth- Heinemann, 2007

[2]Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century, Taylor &Francis, 2009 p.311

[3]US National Strategy for Maritime Security: A Cooperative Strategy for the 21st century seapower, p.8

[4]It is one of the most diversified tropical seas. The rich fishing stock, the high potential of hydrocarbon resources and the discovery of hybrid coal make the South China Sea become an attractive pool of resources. In addition, more than 41,000 ship, accounting for more than half of the world shipping volume sail through the sea annually.

[5]E.g. although not the littoral states, Japan and Korea have transported 80% of their oil import through the South China Sea.

[6]The official statistic on military expenditure of China announce on 4 March 2010. However, according to some Western sources, this number did not cover the expenditure for importing military equipment. In 2009 alone, the Ministry of Defense of the United States reveal that the total military expenditure of China reached USD 150 billions. Russia also announced that china has spent USD 17 billions to import military equipment from them from 2001 to 2010.

[7]Vinod Saighal, “Is Time Running Out: The Urgency for Full, Final and Equitable Resolution of the South China Sea Imbroglio”, Presentation at The South China Sea: Towards a region of Peace, Security and Cooperation, Hồ Chí Minh, 2010

[8]E.g. the harassment to Philippines seismic survey vessel in the Reed Bank in March 2011 and the cut of seismic cable of the Bình Minh 02 and Viking of Vietnam in May and June 2011.

[9]Global Times, 25 November 2011. Although Chinese spokesman announce that the opinion of Global Times is not the official of Chinese government, the fact that an official voice of the Chinese Communist Party cover this view indicated that at least this was the view of majority leaders of Beijing or this can be considered as threaten policy of the country.  Earlier in June, the Global Times already transmitted a similar message to Vietnam.

[10]The first incident related to the crash between Chinese aircraft and the military EP3 of the United States on location of 70 miles away from Hainan Island on 1 April 2001. The second concerned the incident between Chinese navy ship and the Impeccable of the United States on the location of 75 nautical miles from the base lines of China on 8 March 2009.

[11]Scott Snyder, Brad Glosserman, and Ralph A. Cossa, Confidence Building Measures in the South China Sea, Issues and Insights, No 2-01, Pacific Forum CSIS, 2001, p.4

[12]Christopher John Paterson, UNEP/GEF Review of Coral Reefs in the South China Sea, 2006, p. 5-6

[13]This number has not taken into account the fishermen of Vietnam. on 31 October 2011). This statistic also did not count the large number of fishermen of China and Taiwan in the South China Sea.

[14]Sources: World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2010, accessed at on 31 October 2011). China and Taiwan are alo leading fishery exporters in the world.

[15]Scott Snyder et al, note 12, p.19

[16]Christopher J. Paterson, op.cit, note 13

[17]Some countries like the Philippines and Indonesia start to estimate the effect of IUU fishing to their economies. This caused the strengthening in patrol and arrest of foreign fishing vessels. In addition, China was also active in sending petrol vessel to the EEZ of the littoral states to prevent the fishing and arrest fishing vessels of other countries.