Letter from the Executive Board
Welcome to DISEC. The Executive Board hopes that this background guide serves
as a starting point in your research. Please use this study guide as a mere outline of
the topics you wish to discuss in committee. Feel free to contact any of us in case of queries. We cannot wait to hear your views on these issues!
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About the Committee
The Disarmament and International Security Committee (UNGA-DISEC) is the
first committee of the United Nations General Assembly. The First Committee
deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the
international community and seeks out solutions to the challenges in the
international security regime. It considers all disarmament and international
security matters within the scope of the Charter or relating to the powers and
functions of any other organ of the United Nations; the general principles of
cooperation in the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments; promotion of
cooperative arrangements and measures aimed at strengthening stability through
lower levels of armaments.
Mandate of UNGA-DISEC
The General Assembly is the main deliberative, policymaking and representative
organ of the United Nations. Comprising all members of the United Nations, it
provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of
international issues covered by the Charter. The Assembly meets in
regular session intensively from September to December each year, and thereafter
as required. The functions and powers of the General Assembly are stipulated in
Chapter IV of the Charter of the United Nations.
Charter of the United Nations is available here:
The past two decades have witnessed the expansion of China’s global footprint,
with special emphasis in the South Pacific region. This development is often
perceived to be faster than China’s natural economic and geopolitical clout. It’s
important to question China’s ambitions in this region and understand the
implications of such a large-scale expansion. Furthermore, using economic and
military coercion, the Chinese Communist Party has been bullying its neighboring
countries, claiming unlawful territorial control, and threatening maritime shipping
lanes. China’s predatory behavior in the Asia-Pacific region largely increases
conflict risks. The United States’ withdrawal from this region and its perception of
this threat as gradual, rather than immediate, have fueled China’s dramatic rise in
South-China Sea Dispute
For years, China has disputed with several Southeast nations, such as Indonesia,
Philippines, and Taiwan, over territorial control in the South China Sea. First, it’s
essential to understand the maritime significance of this region.
Significance of South China Sea
The United States Energy Information Agency estimates there are 11 billion barrels
of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the sea — more
than exists in the reserves of some of the world’s biggest energy exporters.
The waters also contain lucrative fisheries that account for, according to some
estimates, 10 percent of the global total. But this means that a lot of fishing boats
are cruising around in waters contested by several different navies, increasing the
risk of conflict. The area’s greatest value is as a trade route. According to a 2015
Department of Defense report, $5.3 trillion worth of goods moves through the sea
every year, which is about 30 percent of global maritime trade. That includes huge
amounts of oil and $1.2 trillion worth of annual trade with the United States
The Hague Tribunal - A Case Study
On 22 January 2013, the Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings against China
in a dispute concerning their respective “maritime entitlements” and the legality of
Chinese activities in the South China Sea. In response, by a diplomatic note dated
19 February 2013 addressed to the Philippines, China expressed its rejection of the
arbitration. In China’s view, the Arbitral Tribunal did not have jurisdiction in the
case because China’s acceptance of dispute settlement under the UN Convention
on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the basis put forward by the Philippines – was
limited and excluded sea boundary delimitations and the determination of historic
titles. Since then, China has continuously refused either to accept or to participate
in the arbitral proceedings initiated by the Philippines. The tribunal, however, did
not see this as an obstacle: on 29 October 2015, it delivered its first award finding
that it had jurisdiction, and, on 12 July 2016, its award deciding on the merits of the dispute.
12 July 2016 Award
The award addresses three main substantive issues: (a) the so-called “nine-dash
line” and China’s claim to historic rights in the South China Sea, (b) the status of
certain maritime features in the South China Sea and (c) the legality of Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Because of jurisdictional limits, however, the
Arbitral Tribunal did not deal with matters related to territorial sovereignty over
the disputed maritime features between the parties. That means that the tribunal did
not decide who owned the maritime features located in the South China Sea, such
as the Spratly Islands, that are claimed by both China and the Philippines or any
other coastal state in the region. Similarly, the tribunal did not delimit any maritime
boundaries between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.
The tribunal dealt with the question whether China’s claims to historic rights
within the “nine-dash line” were in conformity with UNCLOS. It first observed
that this area – in which China claimed rights, “formed in the long historical
course”, to living and non-living resources (i.e. fisheries and petroleum resources)
– partially overlaps with areas that would otherwise comprise the exclusive
economic zone (EEZ) or the continental shelf (CS) of the Philippines. In the view
of the tribunal, UNCLOS establishes a comprehensive maritime zones regime and
allocates rights in these areas to the coastal state and other states: in the areas of the
EEZ and the CS, the coastal state enjoys exclusive sovereign rights to the
exploitation of living and non-living natural resources. Concerning the rights of
other states in these areas, the tribunal found that UNCLOS does not permit the
preservation of historic rights of any state within the EEZ or the CS of another
state. Therefore, after its entry into UNCLOS, the historic rights that might have
existed for China within the “nine-dash line” in areas that would otherwise include
the EEZ or the CS of the Philippines were superseded by the maritime zones
regime created by UNCLOS. That means the pre-existing historic rights no longer
exist as they are not compatible with UNCLOS. Accordingly, the tribunal
concluded that China’s claims were contrary to UNCLOS and exceeded the
geographic limits imposed by it.
In a next step, the tribunal determined the legal status of certain maritime features
occupied by China in the South China Sea. Determining whether these are
“islands", “rocks", “low-tide elevations” (LTEs) or “submerged banks” is important
because, unlike fully entitled islands, rocks which cannot sustain human habitation
or economic life of their own do not generate an EEZ and a CS. Consequently,
rocks do not give rights to resource exploitation beyond their territorial sea.
Furthermore, LTEs or submerged banks do not generate any maritime zone. The
tribunal found most disputed maritime features not to be capable of generating an
EEZ or CS: it classified Scarborough Shoal as a rock, and among those features in
the Spratly Islands, it found Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Second Thomas Shoal to
be LTEs, and Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Fiery Cross Reef to be mere rocks.
However, contrary to the Philippines’ position, the tribunal concluded that Gaven
Reef (North) and McKennan Reef are rocks that are not capable of generating an
EEZ or a CS.
The tribunal assessed the status of these features taking into consideration their
natural condition, prior to human modifications. In this respect, the Tribunal
emphasized that China’s construction of installations and significant reclamation
work as well as its maintenance of military or governmental personnel or civilians
cannot enhance a feature’s status from rock or a LTE to a fully entitled island
capable of generating an EEZ and a CS.
The tribunal also ruled on the legality of activities of Chinese officials and Chinese
vessels in the areas of the South China Sea located within the Philippines’ EEZ and
CS. It concluded that China breached the provisions of UNCLOS, in particular by
(a) temporarily prohibiting fishing in areas of the South China Sea falling within
the Philippines’ EEZ, (b) failing to prevent Chinese vessels from fishing in the
Philippines’ EEZ at Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal and (c) preventing
Filipino fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal.
Regarding China’s construction of artificial islands, installations and structures at
Mischief Reef – a LTE which is part of the Philippines’ EEZ and CS – without the
authorisation of the Philippines, the tribunal also found China to have violated
In addition, with respect to the protection and preservation of the marine
environment in the South China Sea, the tribunal found that China breached
UNCLOS since it failed to prevent fishermen from Chinese flagged vessels from
harvesting (a) endangered species on a significant scale and (b) in such a manner as
to destroy the coral reef ecosystem. Furthermore, the tribunal held that China’s
land reclamation and construction of artificial islands, installations and structures
in the Spratly Islands caused severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.
The Philippines welcomed the award, which vindicated most of its claims, and
stated that it remained open to negotiate with China. Conversely, China rejected the
decision as illegal, null and void and therefore without any binding effect on itself.
Other countries, including the United States, Vietnam, Australia and Japan, backed
the Philippines and called on China to respect the tribunal’s decision. On the other
hand, Cambodia supported China’s non-acceptance of the award. ASEAN
members issued a joint communiqué reaffirming the need to avoid actions that
might escalate tensions in the South China Sea and to seek the peaceful resolution
of disputes in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.
China’s Expansion Strategies
Beijing’s adoption of the ‘String of Pearls’should be viewed as its regional and
theater strategy. China is monopolizing strategic choke points in the Indian Ocean
region by investing in geopolitically important ports from Hong Kong to Sudan.
The String of Pearls quite literally encircles neighboring countries, particularly
India. In July 2017, Chinese troops established its first overseas military base in
China’s anti access/ area denial (A2/AD) activities comprise its operational level
strategy. It is a military operation that aims to prevent an adversary’s access to a
territorial region (anti-access) and deny their freedom of movement on the
battlefield (area denial).
China has made efforts to develop its effective A2/AD capabilities to deter possible
access to its territories by potential adversaries. In particular, the People’s
Liberation Army (PLA) has strengthened its A2/AD capabilities by developing
attack aircraft, submarines, mines, missiles, and air and missile defense systems. In
response, the US plans to deploy a new weapons system composed of mid-range
missiles capable of piecing Beijing’s A2/AD shield in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Japan has developed its own long-range missile with ranges up to
1,000 kms, meaning they can reach China’s A2/AD sphere.
Beijing is reinforcing its defense capabilities at a tactical level through military
Exercises in preparation for possible emergencies stemming from its territorial
disputes in areas such as the Taiwan Strait, the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands,
and the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands. Some analysts observe China is utilizing a
‘Salami Slicing Tactic’ in its territorial disputes. Chinese military aircraft have
frequently flown near the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands and the Miyako Strait.
On February 1, 2021, the Chinese government enacted a new Coast Guard Law
permitting the Chinese Coast Guard more flexibility in its use of weapons. On 06
Feb 21, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters
around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands and approached within a few hundred meters
of a Japanese fishing boat. Similar incidents have occurred almost every week
since. In response, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) has argued
the country should enact new legislation of its own to effectively counter China’s
aggressive tactics. In addition, the Biden administration reaffirmed the US
commitment to the defense of disputed islands shortly thereafter.
Risks of China’s Rise
This military expansion poses strategic risks for the United States and its allies and
partners. It gives China rapidly increasing capacity to use military coercion in the
Indian Ocean region, both directly, through military intervention, and indirectly, by
compelling changes in regional states’security policies. It also gives China
advantages in case of a potential war in the region