The South China Sea (SCS) is one of the most disputed sea in the world, with contested maritime claims by Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and China. The geographical location of South China Sea with its proximity with the Strait of Malacca in the West and Pacific Ocean in the East makes it an area of interest as an important water way not only for the regional states but also the hegemonic western states and United States in particular. Over the years China has invested heavily militarily in the region and has also changed the geo-graphical topography of the region to further its claims. While the western powers and United States with the help of international regimes such as United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas 1982 (UNCLOS) and with the help of regional alliances is trying to counter the claims of China on the South China Sea. The SCS dispute depicts an important case study for the students of International Law and this study is aimed to analyze the legalities of the issue in the light of Laws of the Seas as constituted under UNCLOS.
The claims to the territory of SCS dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 CE) Ming Dynasty (1403-1644) during which the water ways under consideration were regulated under the tributary system of the Chinese Empire. Historically China in order to increase its influence over the region and to avoid protracted border skirmishes devised the tributary system according to which the vassal states in the region were given autonomy to carryout trade and transit in the region, while, in return giving tribute to the Chinese emperor, acknowledging China’s dominance, in return China offered gifts and protection to the vassal states. These regulations were in contradictory with the freedom of Navigation and concept of trade by Western states when they entered into the region in search of trade routes by the early 16th Century. During this time period China’s South Sea Region trade was with Funan (present day Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) dating back to 502-587 CE and further trade and shipping with Malaya City states dating back to 13th Century. The tributary system saw its demise when China suffered humiliating defeat during the Opium Wars of (1839-42 and 1856-60). The tributary systems was replaced with treaties which resulted from the defeat during the Opium Wars.
Figure 1. Territorial Claims in South China Sea
The historical claims drawn by the PRC over the control of SCS territory is based on nine-dash line which refers to the number of lines drawn in the original map to mark the boundaries of China’s maritime claim. These lines were drawn by geographer Yang Huarien in 1949, for the then Nationalist government of China. The geographer Yang’s map consisted of 11-dashes that were vaguely drawn in the SCS region to claim the contested regions of Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank, Pratas Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The two-dashes were removed on the behest of Mao Zedong when he ceded the Gulf of Tonkin to Vietnam in 1952, thus, reducing the total line to nine.
Law of the Seas
Law of the Seas is defined as “constitution for the oceans” is a set of legal framework aimed to codify the international rules and laws regarding to the sovereignty of internal waters, territorial waters, sea lanes and ocean resources. The Law of the Seas is codified in the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in 1982 and came into force in 1994 after being ratified by more than 150 states.
The UNCLOS of 1982 was originally codified from the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I) in 1958 at Geneva. This conference drew upon four conventions relating to the Convention on Territorial Sea and Contagious Zone, Fishing and High Seas Conservation resources and Continental Shelf. These rules regulate the rights of exploiting resources from the region, economic and navigational freedom and right of innocent passage within he maritime domain of an independent and sovereign coastal state. The UNCLOS defines the maritime territorial boundaries of a sovereign coastal state into following categories: 1) Territorial Sea 2) Contiguous Zone 3) Exclusive Economic Zone. 4) High Seas.
1. Territorial Sea
The UNCLOS defines the limit and extent of territorial boundaries for every sovereign coastal state under which it can exploit the fishery and natural resources. The territorial waters extend to 12 nautical miles or approximately 22 km which are represented by baselines drawn beyond the coast or low water line, within this no foreign vessel can pass through and neither a plane can fly-by through the airspace above this area. The rules for establishing the baseline for the territorial seas of a coastal state are inscribed in Articles 5-11,13 and 14 of UNCLOS 1982 and also derives its legitimacy from Article 3 of Convention on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zones of 1958. Moreover, the breadth of the territorial sea from the base line is limited up-to 24 nautical miles.
2. Contiguous Zone
The contiguous zones under the UNCLOS is the region adjacent to the territorial sea of a state in the open seas. The Article 33(1) and (2) of UNCLOS 1982 which are similar to the Article 24 (1) of Convention on Territorial Seas and Contiguous Zones of 1958, defines the legitimacy of the contiguous zones. Under this law the contiguous zone may not exceed or extend beyond the 24 nautical miles from the low water line or the baselines from where the width of the territorial seas is measured. Contiguous Zones which can be governed by the sovereign coastal state only for exercising the taxation, customs and immigration laws.
3. Exclusive Economic Zones
The Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) which extends to 200 nautical miles or 370 km from the shore line of a state are defined by the Article 56(1) of the UNCLOS of 1982.Within the EEZ a state has exploitative rights to all natural resources and fisheries in the sea, seabed and subsoil areas. A state can regulate but it should maintain the freedom of maritime navigation and over-flight in the region. A sovereign coastal state has right to construct artificial islands and installations within its EEZ for economic purposes. The Articles 62, 69-71 of 1982 Convention further explains that if a state is incapable of exploiting the resources within its EEZ can make arrangements for sharing the region with foreign states by requiring payment from them.
4. The High Seas
The term high seas signify all the parts of the sea which are not included in the territorial seas and contiguous zones of the states. According to the Article 2 of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas that states have freedom to exercise freedom of navigation, trade, fishing, laying submarine cables, pipelines and fly by the high seas freely. The land locked states have right to move freely in the high seas using their flags on the vessels. These rules were repeated in the Article 92 of 1982 UNCLOS.
South China Sea Dispute
The South Chins Sea (SCS) dispute is a maritime claims dispute among various states including China, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. The states dispute over the claims of territorial control, freedom of navigation, fisheries, shipping lines and exploitation of natural resources of oil and gas in the South China Sea region. The disputed territories include various feature in the SCS such as Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Mischief Reefs, Johnson, Hughes, Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Gaven (North) and Subi Reefs, Scarborough Shoals, among various continental shelfs and banks.
China over the years has been exercising its influence in the region covered in the nine-dash line and building military bases and structures on the artificial islands in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Thus, maintain an Area Access Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, hampering freedom of navigation of western and especially American naval assets and hegemonic interests in the region. China has maintained a physical presence and claim in the region since late 1950’s. China has carried out various oil exploration and drilling expeditions off the coast of Vietnam near disputed Paracel Islands in SCS which led to a stand-off.
Permanent Court of Arbitration; A Case Study of Philippines vs China
On 22 January 2013, Philippines registered arbitral proceeding against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague under the Annex VII of the UNCLOS 1982. According to the statement Philippines pleaded that China has violated its sovereign right of freedom of navigation and jeopardizing its access to maritime entitlements in the South China Sea by extending its territorial claim in the SCS region, creating artificial islands and maintaining excessive presence of surveillance vessels, naval assets and fishing boats in the region.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague over a period of four procedural hearing orders on July 12, 2016 issued the final award to the case. According to the award China had no legal basis for claiming the historic rights to maritime boundaries and resources in the areas falling in the Nine-Dash line. The UNCLOS does not recognize the group of continental shoals, reefs in the Spratly Islands collectively to generate maritime zones. The PCA further ruled that China violated the obligations of maritime safety under the Article 94 of UNCLOS. The arbitral tribunal also gave verdict that the Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef and its adjacent continental maritime features are well within the 200 nautical miles range on Philippines and formulates its EEZ.
The tribunal stated that the Chinese claim originating from various Reefs in the Spratly Islands hold no legitimacy as some reefs such as Mischief and Subi Reefs, Second Thomas Shoal are low tied elevations and have no entitlement of maritime zones. While various shoals such as Scarborough Shoal, Johnson Reef and Fiery Rock although under Article 121(1) of UNCLOS are high-tide areas of land surrounded by water. But they are categorized as rocks which are uninhabitable and do not generate any maritime zone claim under the Article 121(3) of UNCLOS of 1982. The PAC also ruled that China was unable to protect and preserve the maritime environment in the region and its naval and commercial activities in the region have violated the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea. The tribunal further said in its award that China has violated the Articles 123, 192, 194(1), 194(5), 197 and 206 of UNCLOS by building artificial islands on the Cuarteron, Fiery Cross and Johnson, Hughes, Subi, Mischief, Gaven Reefs. Thus, the tribunal gave the verdict in the favor of the Philippines, which China refused to accept and released a White Paper stating that China would solve the issues bilaterally and pressed on its historical claims on the SCS region.
China-Vietnam Oil Rig Standoff
China’s emerging economy and growing industrial infrastructure is dependent readily upon the oil and gas energy resources. As China lacks abundant natural oil and gas resources in its mainland and is dependent upon Middle Eastern, Gulf and African states to sustain its energy needs. The energy security of China has also increased as bulk of its energy resources transit through the congested straight of Malacca and disputed South China Sea. On May 1st, 2014, China’s state owned China National Offshore Oil Cooperation (CNOOC) oil-rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981) along with three other oil and gas service ships were detected by Vietnam in the disputed SCS region claimed by Vietnam. The oilrig was deployed 120 nautical miles from Ly Son Island in the East of Vietnam and 180 nautical miles South of China’s Hainan province. Due to disputed territorial claims the rig feel in between the hypothetical boundaries of both China and Vietnam. China claimed that the rig was deployed to conduct exploratory drilling and survey of the region and straddled upon hydrocarbon rocks in the region up till 15th August of that year. China further established a parameter of 1 nautical mile and prohibited any naval vessel movement in the area. Vietnam in order to intercept and disrupt the oil rig from establishing a fixed position dispatched six of its coast guard and surveillance vessels. China in order to protect its oil expedition vessels deployed forty naval, coast guard and civilian fishing ships.
Over the coming days the standoff between both states tensed with increase in deployment of naval ships. The incidents of ramming increased as China deployed over 130 naval vessels and aircrafts. While, people started riots across Vietnam and took to streets, various cases of vandalism were reported against Chinese businesses and six Chinese citizens were killed during the riots. China increased its military presence across the border regions also near the Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. After a high-level delegation from Chinese side visited Hanoi on June 18 and the oil rig moved to the North-Eastern region of Triton Island after the official claims of completion of its exploration. On July 15, CNOOC announced that its has withdrawn its oil rig as its endeavor has been completed a month ahead of the scheduled time period.
The stand-off between the two states showcased the limit to which China could take risks to establish its influence and demonstrate its hegemony over the SCS region. Although, Chinese leadership may have not apprehended the Vietnam’s resolve and accepting risks for a sustained period of time.
The most recent incident among the series of confrontation and disputes emerged when China and Malaysia standoff initiated in mid-April 2020 and lasted for a month till May 15, 2020. These latest turn of events started when Chinese survey vessel Dizhi-8 along with escort of Chinese coast guard ships drifted closer to a Malaysian drillship West Capella which was contracted by state owned Petronas oil firm in EEZ claimed by China, Malaysia and Vietnam in SCS. This standoff is also significant as during the unfolding of events US and China both maintained a constant military presence near the disputed area. US had deployed its guided missile cruiser, USS Bunker Hill and an amphibious assault vessel USS America in the region. US further displayed an excessive use of force as USAF B-52, B-1B Lancers conducted sorties along with EP-3E, P-3C Orion, P8-A Poseidon, RC-135W Rivet joint reconnaissance planes not only over the SCS region but also over Taiwan Strait and East China Sea. These events intensified and heated the already tensed region as both sides frowned at each other and remain locked eyeball to eyeball with each other for over a month. US maintained its claims of Freedom of Navigation (FoN) while challenging China’s assertiveness in the SCS, meanwhile, China during the unfolding of these events restrained itself from any engagement and withdraw from the region on May 15, 2020. While, China afterwards in show of force initiated a month long naval exercises in July 2020 where it also deployed its indigenous Shandong Type 002 aircraft carrier. Following which US carried out its largest naval drills comprising of three strike groups comprising of USS Nimitz, USS Ronal Regan and USS Theodore Roosevelt participated accompanied by cruiser, guided missile-destroyers in a show of force sending a strong message to Beijing. Thus, the most recent strategic movements come at a time when the major powers were engaged in a volley of tariff war, uncertain health and economic system amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The issuance of flexing military muscles and assertion of dominance while defying international norms by China and reassertion of the status quo by the US has become a norm in the region, posing threat to international system.
China’s Approach of Expansion and Cooperation
Over the years China has gained sufficient economic power and has now been exercising its national interests using soft power. The Asia Pacific states which have been used by the West and mainly US to contain China in the region and various Quadrilateral alliances such as between US, India, Japan, Australia which emphasize upon naval and maritime cooperation and increase in freedom of navigation missions in the SCS to counter the Chinese claims. Similarly, renaming of Pacific Command of US Navy to Indo-Pacific Command also signifies the American aims and interests in the region towards countering the Chinese naval expansion in the region. The region has witnessed various aggressive maneuvers at sea and in the air between the military assets of both China and the US in the SCS. US with its immense naval resources, increasing in frigates, destroyers, anti-submarine warfare assets, and nuclear submarines in the region, has been facing challenges to its hegemony and freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea in the face of increasing Chinese naval presence. China has been to strengthen its control over the SCS has created artificial islands by dredging and landfills and established military bases over them.
For furthering its interests in the SCS region China has been engaging into economic cooperation with the SCS states. It has proposed to carry out joint initiatives for oil and natural resources exploration with Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei. China has been working on the framework of developing Code of Conduct for SCS through the framework of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to overcome the territorial disputes. China’s policy of economic cooperation is shifting the geo-political dimensions in the South China Sea region which is a blow to the Western policy and hegemony. China’s continual defiance towards the international laws and regulations are also evident to the increasing Chinese power and weakening of the international regimes which are losing power to enforce their authority.China is shaping the international law to its own liking and has been strategically investing into research and scholarly works to prioritize its national interests. US has to organize and gather regional and international support if it wants to force China to abide by the international law.
The contemporary world order is defined by the western international regimes that govern and regulate the behavior of the states. International Law is defined to establish a recognized obligation framework under which states are compelled to operate. Evidently the norms and premise of the international law are being weakened and challenged as the emerging powers such as China has been playing around the international law. The revocation of UNCLOS in SCS by China in recent history is an evident example of this changing behavior and deterioration of the international norms. China has over the years attained significant economic muscles and to further its economic viability it is dependent upon the free transit of its oil and trade vessels through the South China Sea region until its Belt and Road Initiative is not matured. To counter the challenges it face in the South China Sea and beyond with increasing presence of US naval assets and alliances in the region China has to take resolute steps to maintain its territorial presence in the South China Sea and beyond. China has successfully sustained the pressures from international regimes and laws thus signifying the weakness and changing of the world order. The legitimacy of the international regimes has been challenged by the Chinese defiance and the US is gaining on and investing in establishing alliance in the region to counter and contain the Chinese influence. The US can resort to coercive actions as a last resort to maintain its weakening hegemonic stature, while, China is trying to avoid any direct conflict but at the same time is manipulating the International regimes in its favor by enhancing economic cooperation.
Daniel Wei Boon Chua, “China’s History and the South China Sea,” Asia Dialogue, March 6, 2017, https://theasiadialogue.com/2017/03/06/chinas-history-and-the-south-china-sea/, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
Ben Black, “The South China Sea Disputes: A Clash of International Law and Historical Claims,” Penn StateJournal of Law and International Affairs, March 22, 2018, https://sites.psu.edu/jlia/the-south-china-sea-disputes-a-clash-of-international-law-and-historical-claims/, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
 Peter Malanczuk, Akehurst’s Modern Introduction to International Law (New York; Routledge, 1997) p. 173
 Ibid, 182-183.
 Ibid, 184.
Robin R. Churchill, “Law of the Sea International Law (1982),” Britannica, December 8, 2006, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Law-of-the-Sea#accordion-article-history, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
 Malanczuk, 185-186.
Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus And Jake Douglas, “Counter-Coercion Series: China-Vietnam Oil Rig Standoff,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, June 12, 2017. https://amti.csis.org/counter-co-oil-rig-standoff/, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
PTI, “China releases white paper, reasserts claim over South China Sea,” Economic Times, July 13, 2016, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/china-releases-white-paper-reasserts-claim-over-south-china-sea/articleshow/53187848.cms, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
Green, Hicks, Cooper, Schaus, Douglas, Jun, “Counter-Coercion Series: China-Vietnam Oil Rig Standoff,” (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
 “Two US warships in South China Sea amid China-Malaysia standoff,” Aljazeera, April 21, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/warships-south-china-sea-china-malaysia-standoff-200421055333993.html
 Rozanna Latiff, “Chinese ship leaves Malaysian waters after month-long South China Sea standoff,” Reuters, May 15, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-security-malaysia/chinese-ship-leaves-malaysian-waters-after-month-long-south-china-sea-standoff-idUSKBN22R1SN
 “US Sends Stern Message To China; Deploys 3 Aircraft Carriers In South China Sea,” Eurasian Times, June 13, 2020, https://eurasiantimes.com/us-sends-stern-message-to-china-deploys-3-aircraft-carriers-in-south-china-sea/
Black, “The South China Sea Disputes: A Clash of International Law and Historical Claims,” (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
Mercy A. Kuo, “The Geopolitics of Oil and Gas in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2018/12/the-geopolitics-of-oil-and-gas-in-the-south-china-sea/, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
Lynn Kuok, “Countering China’s Actions in the South China Sea,” August 1st, 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/countering-chinas-actions-south-china-sea, (Accessed on May 11, 2019).
Reforming the UN: Possibility and Necessity
All major wars of the second half of the 20th century ended without the participation of this organisation and its permanent bureaucratic structures. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the UN had no objection to the increasingly active usurpation of its functions by the military-political blocs of the West. Now this organisation is not a body of the international community, but a relatively open platform for communication between representatives of different countries.
The recent High-Level Week within the framework of the 78th UN General Assembly was accompanied by growing discussions about the need to reform this organisation. First of all, we are talking about the future of its highest body — the Security Council (UNSC), whose five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) have exclusive rights in the field of international security.
While this discussion has not yet reached its conclusion, all the main participants are exercising caution and test each other’s positions. For the great powers, participants in the “Areopagus” of the Security Council, it is difficult to take decisive related action. We can never exclude the possibility that between them, despite the bitter conflict in Europe, there remains a generally restrained attitude towards a real revision of their status. This is precisely what could be the consequence of the expansion of the permanent members of the Security Council and the beginning of the destruction of the entire system created after the Second World War.
The United Nations is the institutional embodiment of the West’s desire to preserve the international order in which it has played a leading role for more than 500 years. That is why it is fundamentally important for the United States and Europe to maintain their majority in the Security Council. This is what ultimately makes it possible to effectively control the working bodies of the UN. First of all, the secretariat of this most important international organisation. Now the UN remains the last “pillar” of a relatively stable world order and, at the same time, ensures the formal participation of almost all countries of the world in the discussion of the global agenda. In other words, the UN as we know it is the product of a compromise in which the West maintains its dominance and everyone else does not feel a complete injustice is being done to their basic interests.
Conceptually, the UN, of course, arose from the understanding that a relatively stable international order must take into account the interests of those who could destroy it through revolutionary behaviour. This was the most important lesson of the Second World War, which arose as a result of injustice towards a number of major powers. Germany, Japan and Italy suffered a catastrophic defeat in this war and actually lost their sovereignty with respect to issues of foreign and defence policy. Their fate was the inevitable result of the situation in which they found themselves at the beginning of the last century. However, after the rebellion was suppressed, the victors were still able to create an order that kept potential new rebels from repeating the same destructive actions.
The military and political power of the USSR and later China was immersed in a system where their strategic opponents continued to play the leading role. For Moscow, the creation of the UN became a forced compromise between its colossal capabilities and status as the main winner in the war against Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the inability to challenge the entire West, on the other. China was only able to restore its participation in the Security Council in the early 1970s, when its reconciliation with the United States and its allies was already looming on the horizon. Thus, from the very beginning, the UN became a means of civilized containment of the leading opponents of the West, whose formal high status limited the likelihood of their rebellion against the general dominance of the United States and Europe in world affairs.
During its existence, the UN has not been able to prevent a single relatively serious military conflict between states. It would also be naive to think that thanks to the UN and its decisions, any conflict was truly resolved. All major wars of the second half of the 20th century ended without the participation of this organisation and its permanent bureaucratic structures. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the UN had no objection to the increasingly active usurpation of its functions by the military-political blocs of the West. Now this organisation is not a body of the international community, but a relatively open platform for communication between representatives of different countries. Although even this function may turn out to be increasingly limited due to the fact that the United States, where the UN headquarters is located, is using the right of access to the territory in its own political interests.
Now we can truly say that the UN system is in crisis. The main reason for this is the general loss of the West’s ability to bolster its institutional capabilities with the resources needed for unchallenged global leadership. The general democratisation of the international system is reflected in increasing freedom of expression not only by large, but also by medium-sized and even small countries. More and more, the United States and Europe need to directly intimidate individual states in order to obtain their desired voting results in the Security Council or General Assembly. Russia and especially China are feeling increasingly confident and are actually rejecting the UN-centred common order as an instrument of Western dominance. The Western countries themselves are trying to counterattack in response, and are raising the issue of reforming the Security Council, including new permanent members. The most common candidate countries are Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.
However, discussions about real reform of the main body of the international community are still quite cautious. Everyone understands that a decisive restructuring of the UN could lead to the complete destruction of this organisation and the loss of even the minimum opportunity for a broad discussion of global and regional problems. Most countries in the world quite rightly think that if the United States and Europe are faced with the prospect of losing their unique capabilities within the UN, they will simply destroy this institution. But sooner or later we will still have to address this issue seriously. Therefore, the debates at the level of expert discussion cannot become the subject of long-term delays.
First of all, it would make sense to address several questions. First, the relationship between the institutional embodiment of the international order and the actual balance of power in the world needs to be discussed. The UN includes dozens of countries around the world that have emerged in recent decades. However, it was created in the colonial era and, at a conceptual level, it is tied to the Second World War, which has become distant history for most countries throughout the world. In this regard, the UN, of course, has long been morally outdated and does not reflect the spirit of our times. In some ways it is a copy and continuation of the Westphalian order, created by Europeans for themselves and then imposed on the rest of the world. Whether such an intellectual basis can be sufficiently reliable now needs, at the very least, a serious debate.
Second, the location of the secretariat, headquarters and site of the main UN events reflects the realities of 80 years ago, but not today. The same can be said about the principles and practice of forming the apparatus of the main UN bodies, primarily its secretariat. It is no coincidence that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently drew attention to this, emphasising that “The criteria that have been in place for many years do not reflect the actual influence of states in global affairs and artificially ensure the excessive dominance of citizens of NATO and EU countries.” Despite its technical nature, this issue is central. It is the working bodies that ultimately determine the agenda and modality of the UN’s activities and create the main ways for individual states to influence this.
Finally, there is a need for a conceptual discussion of the functions and tasks of the Security Council, including the group of its permanent member countries. This issue is now the most popular, but its solution depends on an understanding of the goals, and not on the agreement of the countries regarding the mechanical expansion of the Security Council. It is quite possible that, as a result of the discussion, we will generally come to the conclusion that the Security Council, in modern conditions, can no longer play the unique role that belongs to it in the ideal model of international governance. Then all the talk about who really deserves to take part in the Security Council meetings will turn out to be completely unnecessary.
From our partner RIAC
The Impact of Cultural and Religious Differences on Ethnic Conflict: A Case Study of Alawites in Syria
Alawites are the ethnic and religious minority in Syria which comprise 12-15 percent about 2 million of the Syrian population. As far as the twentieth century, Alawites consisted of four main tribes in relative confinement mostly. They lived in the mountainous region of Hama, Latakia, and Homs while the Sunni majority lived mostly in the densely populated areas of Damascus and Aleppo. The Alawite community faced subjugation and marginalization based on geographic separation and economic disparities and this extended until the French came into power. Before the French control of Syria in 1920, the Alawaites were known as “Nusayris”. After the French control, they started to be known as Alawite which means the followers of Ali. It was under the French that the Alawites emerged from the rural highlands and enjoyed a certain type of autonomy. The French set up a separate state for the Alawites known as the Latakia state in July 1922. The French also recruited the Alawites into the Troupes Speciales du levant, which later evolved into the Lebanese and Syrian Defense Forces in 1921. Sunnis who were in the majority were against the French as they wanted to create an autonomous Greater Syria which was a term mostly used by the pan-arab nationalists. This further led to a distinct Alawite identity fostering the rifts between the Sunni community and Alawites in Syria.
The Alawites gained prominence in Syria and were provided with the chance of upward mobility during the rule of the Assad family who belongs to the Alawite community. In 1970, Hafiz- Al Assad by a military coup came into power establishing a regime that favored the Alawite community in Syria. From 1966 to 1970 more than 65 percent of the entire military of Syria constituted Alawites and even today Alawites hold key positions in the army. Since that moment, the conflicts within Syria have been dominated by religious, cultural, and sectarian divisions. Moreover, the Alawite community fatalities have sparked over the years, either fighting to shield the Assad regime or because they are indicted of supporting or assisting his regime. In the 1970s, A Sunni Organization named Muslim Brotherhood targeted the Alawite community for violence but the regime suppressed the group in a genocide in 1982.
Religious practices and beliefs:
In the modern Syrian context, the Alawites are classified as Muslims but their practices often tend to deviate from Muslim orthodoxy in various arenas. The Alawites are an ethnoreligious group that follows a branch of Shia Islam. They claim that “there is no deity but Ali, no viel but Muhammad, and no Bab but Salman”. The Islam of the Sunni sect under the scholar Ibn Taymiyaa issued several fatwas against Alawites claiming that they are greater disbelievers than Jews and Christians and authorized jihad against them. and The Alawites believe in the idea of the Divine Trinity constituting Muhammad, Ali, and Salman, which is revealed in the seven derivations of the Godhead, each incorporated into three persons. The Alawites believe in reincarnation but the Muslims of other sects oppose this belief saying that it is contrary to Islam.
In addition, other elements such as the acceptability of alcohol, Christmas celebrations, and the new year of Zoroastrians make them highly suspicious in front of the orthodox Muslims. The distinct beliefs and practices of Alawites have played a crucial role in shaping the ethnic conflicts within Syria. Historically, the Alawite community has faced discrimination and marginalization within Syria which has led to the creation of a sense of otherness among them due to their own unique set of rituals, practices, and beliefs that differ from those of the Sunni majority of Syria.
Cultural and Religious Differences as contributing factors of Conflict:
The ethnic conflict in Syria is entrenched in cultural and religious differences between the Sunnis and Alawites. Throughout the 20th century, religion has been rendered as a main source of conflict between the Alawites and Sunni ethnic groups in Syria. It is because Alawites and Sunnis adhere to different branches of Islam having distinct religious practices and beliefs. This further leads to religious tensions and ideological differences between the two groups fueling sectarian violence and discrimination. The cultural and religious differences between the Sunnis and Alawites also develop a sense of different identities. Alawites being a minority feel a threat to their identity from the majority of Sunnis whereas on the other hand, Sunni groups view the dominance of minority Alawites as a threat to their own cultural and religious identity and they seek to resist it. Moreover, stereotyping one another based on hate speech, religious intolerance, and demonization has been instrumental in deepening divisions and fueling conflicts between the different ethnic groups.
If we analyze the impacts of religious and cultural differences throughout the recorded history of Syria, we see that during colonial rule, the manipulation of various sects to entrench French rule through discrimination in the structure of the emerging military and the partition of the state into different sects have resulted in long-standing ethnic conflicts. Moreover from 1961 to 1970 religion was further used to strengthen the Alawite influence in the armed forces. The decades-long repression of the majority population of the Sunni community of Syria by the Alawites-led government based on religious and cultural differences and the elevation of Alawites in the private and government sectors led to the creation of sectarian strife among them. All of this was carried out to solidify the Assad regime based on sectarian bonds of the Alawite minority seizing control of the state and pursuing discriminatory policies towards the Sunni majority.
The struggles between the two groups over the years have fed a civil war in Syria that can transform the map of the Middle East. The Syrian war is considered to be a sectarian conflict between the minority Shite with the support of Alawites and the majority Sunni population on the other. The resistance action of the opposition at the start involved many ethnic and religious groups of Syria against the authoritarian regime of Assad turned into another sectarian war between Shi’ites and Sunnis. This Syrian insurgency started for the same reasons as that of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt but now it has turned into a sectarian civil war which has no resemblance to what happened in those countries.
Assad Regime Utilization of Sectarianism
During the forty years, the authoritarian Assad regime in Syria has created the conditions for the conflict and its sectarian components. Assad regime highlighted the use of the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict and by doing that it was somehow successful in motivating the shite Alawite minority to support it. Over the years, the Assad regime has portrayed the opposition forces and in particular the Sunni Muslims as a threat to the very existence of the Alawite community in Syria. The regime has intensified the sectarian nature of the conflict between the Alawites and the Sunni majority as this conflict adopted the shape of the struggle for life for the Alawites in Syria. The Alawites had been a major support base for both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Over the years Assad regime has used the sectarian identity of Alawites for their political objectives to consolidate their power by ensuring the support of primary institutions such as military and security forces.
Moreover, it is also said that the regime has used various sectarian militias dominated by the Alawite community. These militias include the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Shabiha which have been empowered and supported by the Assad regime against the opposition groups such as the rebel fighters comprised of Sunni Muslims. The main strategic objective of such militias was to increase sectarianism in Syria and stop the Alawite community from joining the opposition forces. The regime has portrayed the conflict as a sectarian conflict where the survival of Alawites is at stake while demonizing other ethnic groups, particularly the Sunnis. The result of such utilization of sectarianism that we witness today is that the minority Alawites are entangled in this conflict with the Sunnis due to their historical association with the Assad rule in Syria.
Role of external actors in exacerbating sectarian strife:
The Syrian conflict is a complex one and multiple actors are involved in it with various vested interests. The conflict is often characterized by a multitude of ethnic, ideological, and sectarian divisions with the minority Alawite community in Syria being one of them. Several external actors such as Hizbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and Shite fighters from Syria have bolstered their financial and political support to the Assad regime backed by Iran and Russia. Over the years, Iran has remained the steadfast supporter of the Alawite community in Syria, which includes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has provided relentless aid to the Assad regime and has declared the resistance forces in Syria as extremists or terrorists which are supported by Gulf Arab states, the United States, and Israel. The supreme leader of Iran Ayatullah Khomeini once said that Syria is Iran’s thirty-fifth province, and if we fail Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran as well. This statement highlights the strategic significance of Syria for Iran as it is critical for providing the geographical thoroughfare to the Lebanese Shia militia group Hizbollah. Another reason for Iran supporting the Assad regime is that Iran is fearful of Syria’s Sunni majority and the fact that it may rule Syria supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States and then it would be hostile towards Shite Iran. Moreover, the use of foreign Shia militias in Syria against Sunni majority groups further exacerbates the sectarian divisions. So, here in this scenario, religion is playing a key role which further classifies into different sects supporting each other fueling ethnic conflict.
Moreover, various other external actors support different factions within the Syrian conflict involving the Alawites based on their vested interests. The opposition to the Syrian regime comprised of Alawites by the Sunni majority groups has gained support over the years from various external actors including the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. However, not all these actors have been supporting the Sunni majority, particularly against the Alawites.
The Gulf countries particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar have long supported the Sunni rebels in Syria both financially and militarily. The main purpose behind this support is to weaken the influence of their regional rival Iran in Syria and support Sunni rebel groups fighting against the Alawite-led Assad regime. Turkey has been a long-standing supporter of the Sunni rebel groups in the Syrian conflict as it assists the Sunni majority groups both militarily and logistically. The purpose of Turkish support is to prevent the emergence of Kurdish forces along its border. In addition, the United States and the Western allies are supporting the Sunni majority groups to weaken the Assad-led Alawite regime and to counter the extremist threats from ISIS in Syria. It is significant to note that all the external actors involved in the Syrian conflict have their agendas and interest in Syria and their involvement has further complicated the dynamics of the ethnic conflict between the minority Alawites and the majority Sunni groups in Syria.
Efforts needed to address the conflict:
The efforts to address the conflict between the Alawites and Sunnis majority will require an inclusive approach that takes into account all the factors such as historical, cultural, religious, social, political, and economic that are contributing to the long-lasting tensions between the two groups. Healing the sectarian divisions of a diverse nation like Syria is not only necessary, but it has become a significant point for a more secure and stable Syria. To address the long-standing conflict in Syria it is essential to foster dialogue and negotiations between the Alawites and other ethnic groups in Syria. It is also necessary to promote inclusive governance and power-sharing structures within Syria that would provide participation and representation for all other ethnic groups as it would help in addressing the deep-rooted tensions between these groups in Syria. Moreover, engaging neighboring states and regional actors to address the concerns and aspirations of all communities including the Alawites and international support for mediation in the conflict is vital for ensuring the peaceful resolution of this conflict between the Alawites and the predominantly Sunni Muslim community in Syria.
To conclude, we can say that the Alawite-Sunni conflict in Syria is a complex and multi-faceted one. This conflict is a vicious cycle of violence with both sides committing violence against each other. The conflict involves ethnic dimensions with the Alawite minority supporting the Assad regime, while Sunnis oppose it as they see Alawites as an illegitimate ruling class. The Assad regime portrays itself as the protector of the Alawite community against Sunni extremism. Moreover, the conflict has attracted fighters from both sides who are motivated by religious and sectarian considerations. This further polarizes the conflict along the cultural and religious lines making it more difficult to find a peaceful solution. In addition, the external actors’ involvement based on their vested interests has further fueled the conflict along the cultural and religious lines making it more difficult to find a peaceful solution deepening the divisions and prolonging the conflict. However, by addressing the root causes of conflict and engaging in peacebuilding initiatives there is still hope for a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous Syria.
Democracy at Risk: The Global Challenge of Rising Populism and Nationalism
Authors: Meherab Hossain and Md. Obaidullah*
Populism and nationalism represent two discrete political ideologies; however, they may pose potential threats to democracy. Populism is a political ideology and approach characterized by the emphasis on the interests and concerns of ordinary people against established elites or perceived sources of power and privilege. Populist leaders often portray themselves as champions of the “common people” and claim to represent their grievances and desires. It is a political stance that emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often contrasts this group against “the elite”.
Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. It represents a political principal positing that there should be congruence between the political entity and the nation-state. While populism emphasizes the idea of “the people,” nationalism emphasizes the idea of the nation-state.
In what ways can populism pose a threat to democracy?
While some argue that populism is not a threat to democracy per se, others contend that it poses a serious risk to democratic institutions. Populism can become a threat to democracy by undermining formal institutions and functions, discrediting the media, and targeting specific social groups, such as immigrants or minorities. This threat arises from its potential to confer a moral legitimacy upon the state that it might otherwise lack. Consequently, it can jeopardize the defense mechanisms established to safeguard against tyranny, including freedoms, checks and balances, the rule of law, tolerance, autonomous social institutions, individual and group rights, as well as pluralism. Populism imposes an assumption of uniformity onto the diverse fabric of reality, distorting not only factual representations but also elevating the attributes of certain social groups above those of others.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populist rhetoric and policies have led to the erosion of democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the media. Populism in Turkey can be traced back to the era of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s regime, during which Atatürk’s elites, who had limited commonality with the broader society, assumed the responsibility of educating and guiding the masses. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘regime elitism,’ has rendered Turkey susceptible to populism, which fundamentally revolves around the conflict between the elites and the general populace.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populist government has been accused of undermining the rule of law, limiting press freedom, and targeting civil society groups. He has established a repressive and progressively authoritarian state that operates under the guise of democracy.
In media discourse, he has been designated as a populist leader. Empirical analysis reveals that Hungary is currently governed by a form of political populism, characterized as conservative right-wing populism. The salient features of Hungarian political dynamics encompass the government’s claim of challenging established elites, a lack of a clearly defined political agenda, the utilization of propaganda as a prominent tool in its political communications, advocacy for the preservation of a Christian Hungary, intervention in areas traditionally considered independent from state interference such as education and jurisdiction, the implementation of mass clientelism to reward its supporters while exerting pressure on critics, and overt criticism of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Consequently, this trajectory underscores the ascendance of authoritarianism within Hungary.
How Nationalism can be threat to Democracy?
Nationalism can pose a potential threat to both democracy and international relations when it manifests in forms of discrimination, violence, and the exclusion of specific groups. The ascension of nationalism may jeopardize the established efficacy of multilateralism, which has historically been instrumental in preserving lives and averting conflicts. This can result in unilateral actions by certain nations, thereby undermining the collaborative approach to the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Nationalism can serve as a catalyst for conflict and division, fostering tendencies toward exclusivity and competition that impede the resolution of common global challenges. The ascent of economic nationalism has the potential to undermine global collaboration and policy alignment, resulting in a resurgence of nationalist economic strategies in many regions worldwide. Such strategies often prioritize individual national objectives over the collective global interest. Unrestrained nationalism can pose a threat to stability by inflaming ethnic tensions, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence and conflict.
In Europe, nationalism has historically been a significant catalyst for conflict and division, spanning from the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930s to more recent upsurges of nationalist movements in various countries. Nationalism tends to foster exclusivity and competition, thereby complicating efforts to address common global challenges. Under nationalist ideology, exemplified by Hitler, instances of extreme cruelty and inhumanity have been documented.
Another instance of nationalism, which presents a significant challenge to democracy, is the ascendance of Hindu extremism and nationalism in India, resulting in communal tensions. Since the Hindu nationalist BJP came into power, there has been a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims in India, with the situation reaching unprecedented levels of concern. The government has actively employed media, television, and the film industry to propagate Islamophobia among the Hindu majority. In 2018, the Indian High Court rendered a judgment advocating for India to be declared a Hindu state, citing the country’s historical religious divisions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that, in accordance with its constitution, India is mandated to maintain a secular state. Needless to say, the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of fueling sectarian tensions and undermining the country’s secular democracy.
Indeed, while populism and nationalism are distinct concepts, their simultaneous global rise poses a considerable threat to democracy. These ideologies frequently favor specific groups over the broader population and can corrode democratic principles. They tend to exacerbate polarization and undermine vital democratic institutions. Hence, many countries are grappling with substantial challenges to their democratic systems, which puts their stability and effectiveness at risk.
*Md. Obaidullah holds both a BSS and an MSS degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal. He is currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His writing expertise spans various subjects, including Public Policy, Politics, Governance, Climate Change, and Diplomacy, on which he frequently contributes
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