Explained by Graphics: Tension in the South China Sea
Claims on the South China Sea, the recent ruling, and why China is ignoring it
The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.
Tension in the South China Sea reached a potential inflection point this week.
Days ago, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, dismissing China’s sweeping territorial claims to the hotly contested waters in the South China Sea.
Since then, it has become clear that China plans to ignore the ruling, while Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has threatened to declare an air defense identification zone over the waters to help protect the country’s interests.
But how did we get to this point? How was this ruling determined, and what does it mean moving forwards?
Why the South China Sea matters
The South China Sea is home to 250 small islands, shoals, reefs, sandbars, and other tiny landmasses.
The South China Sea is the second most used sea lane in the world, and home to:
- $5 trillion of annual trade
- 11 billion barrels of oil
- 266 trillion cubic ft of natural gas
Six countries claim parts of the South China Sea as their own: China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
However, China has the boldest claim, insisting that over 80% of the sea is their territory based on historical maps.
Island or Rock?
The ruling in the Philippines vs. China hearing is based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994. All countries disputing claims in the South China Sea are signatories.
UNCLOS defines three types of landmasses, and whether something is a “rock” or an “island” has huge implications for territorial claims.
- Low-tide elevation: A landmass above water only at low tide.
- Rock: A landmass permanently above water, but unable to sustain human habitation or economic life on its own.
- Island: A landmass permanently above water that can sustain human habitation and economic life on its own.
Rocks get some territorial benefits, but islands get 200 nautical miles (370 km) of special economic rights around them in each direction.
- Low-tide elevation: Not entitled to any separate maritime zone.
- Rock: Entitled to territorial sea and contiguous zone. Each are up to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from base line.
- Island: Entitled to territorial sea and contiguous zone, but also entitled to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km), and continental shelf rights.
The economic zone confers rights for fishing, drilling, energy production, and other economic activities.
The tribunal ruled that Scarborough Shoal, along with areas occupied by China in the Spratly Islands do not count as “islands”, and therefore do not justify 200 nautical mile (370 km) economic zones around them.
China has rejected the ruling calling it “ill-founded”. Taiwan, which has administered Taiping Island since 1956, also rejected the ruling.
China has argued that the tribunal has no legitimate jurisdiction on this issue since it concerns “sovereignty” – which the text of the UNCLOS explicitly prohibits tribunals from addressing.
What are the consequences?
If China continues to ignore the ruling, likely there will be a “hit” to China’s reputation, but that’s it.
Going back in history, there is a long list of situations where superpowers have ignored international rulings. It is also worth noting that China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and has veto power.
Tension will continue to increase in the South China Sea, creating a situation that could boil over at any time.
Ranked: Share of Global Arms Exports in 2022
The U.S. is the biggest weapons exporter in the world, but which other countries take up a significant share of global arms exports in 2022? And how has that share changed over time?
Ranked: Share of Global Arms Exports 2018–2022
In 2022, global military budgets hit $2.2 trillion, an eighth consecutive year of increase.
Part of those budgets were used for the procurement of arms, but which countries are major weapons suppliers, and how do they influence the global arms trade?
We chart out the top 10 countries with the biggest share of global arms exports using data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Which Country Exports the Most Weapons?
The U.S. is the biggest weapons exporter, accounting for 40% of the total volume of international arms transfers between 2018–2022. Nearly one-fifth of these exports headed to Saudi Arabia, and other significant amounts went to Japan (8.6%) and Australia (8.4%).
Below we rank the biggest weapons exporters by share of total volume traded in 2018–2022, as well as their growth or decline from trends recorded in 2013–2017.
|Rank||Country||% share of global arms exports|
|% change between
2013-17 & 2018-22
|9||🇰🇷 South Korea||2%||+74%|
|N/A||🌐 Rest of World||9%||N/A|
Russia (16%) and France (11%) rank close together, followed by China (5%) and Germany (4%) to round out the top five major arms exporters.
However France’s export volumes grown considerably (+44%) from the previous five-year period, thanks to big sales to India, which included 62 combat aircraft and four submarines, one-third of all French weapons trade. This has resulted in France leapfrogging the U.S. as India’s second-largest weapons supplier after Russia.
On the other hand, Russia’s exports by volume has decreased (-31%) even before sanctions kicked in after the invasion of Ukraine. Its biggest trade partners, India and China, have prioritized developing their own weapons industries.
South Korea’s Surging Weapons Exports
Another country whose arms sales are skyrocketing is South Korea, which ranks 9th in the overall share of global arms exports, but has seen a 74% increase in its export volumes. Key recipients include the Philippines, India, and Thailand.
South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol has pledged to grow his country into the world’s fourth largest arms exporter by 2027.
Interestingly, South Korea is one of three countries which is both a top-10 arms exporter and importer (along with China and the U.S.) as it has many takers for domestically produced military equipment, while simultaneously being reliant on American-produced long-range missiles and advanced combat aircraft.
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