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.
Interactive Map: Tracking Global Hunger and Food Insecurity
Every day, hunger affects more than 700 million people. This live map from the UN highlights where hunger is hitting hardest around the world.
Interactive Map: Tracking Global Hunger and Food Insecurity
Hunger is still one the biggest—and most solvable—problems in the world.
Every day, more than 700 million people (8.8% of the world’s population) go to bed on an empty stomach, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
The WFP’s HungerMap LIVE displayed here tracks core indicators of acute hunger like household food consumption, livelihoods, child nutritional status, mortality, and access to clean water in order to rank countries.
After sitting closer to 600 million from 2014 to 2019, the number of people in the world affected by hunger increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, 155 million people (2% of the world’s population) experienced acute hunger, requiring urgent assistance.
The Fight to Feed the World
The problem of global hunger isn’t new, and attempts to solve it have making headlines for decades.
On July 13, 1985, at Wembley Stadium in London, Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially opened Live Aid, a worldwide rock concert organized to raise money for the relief of famine-stricken Africans.
The event was followed by similar concerts at other arenas around the world, globally linked by satellite to more than a billion viewers in 110 nations, raising more than $125 million ($309 million in today’s dollars) in famine relief for Africa.
But 35+ years later, the continent still struggles. According to the UN, from 12 countries with the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption in the world, nine are in Africa.
|Country||% Population Affected by Hunger||Population (millions)||Region|
|Burkina Faso 🇧🇫||61%||19.8||Africa|
|South Sudan 🇸🇸||60%||11.0||Africa|
|Sierra Leone 🇸🇱||55%||8.2||Africa|
|Syria 🇸🇾||55%||18.0||Middle East|
|Yemen 🇾🇪||44%||30.0||Middle East|
Approximately 30 million people in Africa face the effects of severe food insecurity, including malnutrition, starvation, and poverty.
Although many of the reasons for the food crisis around the globe involve conflicts or environmental challenges, one of the big contributors is food waste.
According to the United Nations, one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. This amounts to about 1.3 billion tons of wasted food per year, worth approximately $1 trillion.
All the food produced but never eaten would be sufficient to feed two billion people. That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa each year.
Solving Global Hunger
While many people may not be “hungry” in the sense that they are suffering physical discomfort, they may still be food insecure, lacking regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development.
Estimates of how much money it would take to end world hunger range from $7 billion to $265 billion per year.
But to tackle the problem, investments must be utilized in the right places. Specialists say that governments and organizations need to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions, increase agricultural productivity, and invest in more efficient supply chains.
Mapped: Where are the World’s Ongoing Conflicts Today?
In 2021, we live in a time of relative peace, however, as this map reveals, that does not mean there are no conflicts in the world today.
Where are the World’s Ongoing Conflicts Today?
We live in an era of relative peace compared to most of history, however, this does not mean that there are no conflicts in the world today.
This map using data from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) reveals where the world’s 27 ongoing conflicts are today, and what type of conflicts they are.
Note: conflicts are categorized by definitions laid out by the CFR.
Detailing the Conflicts
Many people alive today have never lived through a war on their country’s soil, especially those in the West. But conflict, wars, and violence are by no means things of the past.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), as of Q2’2021 alone:
- Violence against civilians resulted in over 5,000 deaths worldwide
- Battle related deaths numbered over 18,000
- Explosion/remote violence led to more than 4,000 deaths
- Riots resulted in over 600 fatalities
Most of the world’s conflicts are concentrated in Asia and Africa and the most common forms are territorial disputes and civil wars. While terrorism often strikes fear in people, only three of the world’s ongoing conflicts are linked to terrorism, according to the CFR.
|Conflict Name||Type||Countries Involved|
|Civil War in South Sudan||Civil War||🇸🇸 South Sudan|
|War in Yemen||Civil War||🇾🇪 Yemen|
|Civil War in Libya||Civil War||🇱🇾 Libya|
|War in Afghanistan||Civil War||🇦🇫 Afghanistan|
|Civil War in Syria||Civil War||🇸🇾 Syria|
|Instability in Iraq||Civil War||🇮🇶 Iraq|
|Criminal Violence in Mexico||Criminal||🇲🇽 Mexico|
|Confrontation of U.S. & Iran||Interstates||🇺🇸 United States
|Conflict of India & Pakistan||Interstates||🇮🇳 India
|North Korea Crisis||Interstates||🇺🇸 United States
🇰🇵 North Korea
|Violence in the DRC||Political Instability||🇨🇩 DRC|
|Instability in Egypt||Political Instability||🇪🇬 Egypt|
|Political Instability in Lebanon||Political Instability||🇱🇧 Lebanon|
|Instability in Venezuela||Political Instability||🇻🇪 Venezuela|
|Tigray War in Ethiopia||Political Instability||🇪🇹 Ethiopia|
|Boko Haram in Nigeria||Sectarian||🇳🇬 Nigeria|
|Violence in Central African Republic||Sectarian||🇨🇫 Central African Republic|
|Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar||Sectarian||🇲🇲 Myanmar|
|Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict||Territorial Disputes||🇦🇲 Armenia
|Conflict in Ukraine||Territorial Disputes||🇺🇦 Ukraine
|Israeli-Palestine Conflict||Territorial Disputes||🇮🇱 Israel
|Turkey & Armed Kurdish Groups||Territorial Disputes||🇹🇷 Turkey|
|South China Sea Disputes||Territorial Disputes||🇨🇳 China
|Tensions in East China Sea||Territorial Disputes||🇨🇳 China
|Destabilization in Mali||Terrorism||🇲🇱 Mali|
|Al-Shabab in Somalia||Terrorism||🇸🇴 Somalia|
|Islamist Militancy in Pakistan||Terrorism||🇵🇰 Pakistan|
As an example of a more typical conflict, Myanmar’s civil unrest began in February 2020 when the military overthrew the democratically elected government and arrested the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The civilian population has been protesting heavily but to no avail. According to a BBC report, more than 860 people have been killed and around 5,000 have been detained.
This is just one of the many examples of persistent violence today including recent events like Mexico’s midterm election violence, Ethiopia’s fighting in the country’s Tigray region, and the fighting between Israel and Palestine over the Sheikh Jarrah evictions.
Finally, though the United States military has now withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the Taliban has taken control of the country, the outlook for the country remains uncertain.
War and Peace
While there are conflicts today, deaths from violence and wars have and wars have decreased over time. For example, battle death rates in state-based conflicts have reduced significantly in a period from 1946 to 2016.
However, according to the UN, although battle related deaths have been decreasing, the number of conflicts occurring in the last few years has actually been on the rise (they have simply remained less deadly). Most conflicts have been waged by non-state actors, like organized criminal groups and political militias.
The UN found that the most common causes of conflict today are:
- Regional tensions
- Breakdowns in the rule of law
- Co-opted or absent state institutions
- Illicit economic gain
- Scarcity of resources exacerbated by climate change
Traditional war between countries and war-related deaths may be becoming a thing of the past, but the threat of violence is still very real. Many countries know this as they continue to build up armies and spend significant amounts on military and defense.
The Future of Warfare
War and conflict are still extremely relevant in the 21st century and impact millions of people. However, traditional warfare may be changing its shape and may become less deadly as a result.
For instance, issues like climate change will create further exacerbations on conflicts, and new forms of technological and cyber warfare could threaten countries’ elections and manipulate populations.
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