The South China Sea is the backyard for a number of neighbors who have not necessarily gotten along throughout history. The past decade has seen minor spats between countries turn into full blown showdowns. As the tension continues to mount it is critical to understand the different components of this potential flashpoint.
1. There Is A Lot At Stake
In terms of geopolitics, the South China Sea is one of the most significant and contentious bodies of water in the world. Linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it serves as an important shipping lane with over half of the world’s commercial shipping passing through it. As the site of massive international trade, the South China Sea sees the movement of billions of dollars between China and the member states of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as well as from across the Pacific.
One-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through the Straits of Malacca, the strategic chokepoint south of Singapore. Not only does the South China Sea feature the shipping of natural resources, it is also reportedly abundant in resources itself. Estimates vary but the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports proven oil reserves to be around 11 billion barrels and natural gas at 190 trillion cubic feet.
2. Countries Are Making Competing Territorial Claims
The seascape is dotted with over two hundred islands that countries lay claim to in order to legitimize their territorial ambitions. Most notable are the conflicting assertions of China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam of control over various islands in the archipelagos of The Spratly Islands, The Paracel Islands and The Pratas Islands, as well as the Scarborough Shoal.
Modern disputes over these islands go back to 1974 when China and South Vietnam briefly clashed over the Paracel Islands. Today, however, many of the disputes boil down to the competing expansionist policies pursued by the region’s major powers. Most inflammatory is China’s Nine-Dash Line, a demarcation of nearly the entire South China Sea at the overwhelming expense of rivals Vietnam and the Philippines. China has worked to buttress this expansive claim by pursuing an aggressive policy of island building. In the Spratly Island archipelago alone, China has created nearly 3,000 acres of new land, usually turning small reefs into large islands that can support infrastructure like airstrips, ports, radar facilities and support buildings. Other countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, have made similar attempts at island building but pale in comparison to the sweeping scope of China’s development.
3. When China Provokes, The US Pushes Back
Part of China’s ambitious expansion strategy has been to not only build up the islands it claims but to take advantage of the anarchic state of the South China Sea to excavate resources deep into its rivals’ territories. Most recently, China provocatively deployed a massive billion-dollar rig into a natural gas rich area claimed by Vietnam. That same rig was the source of a heated exchange between the two countries in 2014 and tensions have remained high ever since. Both sides claim the rig is in their territorial waters and attempts at diplomatic arbitration have failed.
Further complicating this showdown was China’s belligerent ramming of a Vietnamese fishing vessel. Actions like this have become increasingly common in the last few years as states have used fishing fleets to test boundaries. Even when the fisherman are not being deployed for strategic purposes, the consequences of overfishing in the South China Sea have forced them further from the coast, usually into disputed waters where they are accosted.
This heavy handed approach has provoked a disturbing game of brinksmanship between China and the United States. In January 2016, the US Missile Destroyer, USS Curtis Wilbur, sailed near the Beijing-controlled area in the disputed Paracel archipelago in attempt to challenge China’s excessive claim and assert “the right of freedom of navigation”. China condemned the action as a violation of Chinese sovereignty. This has not been the first confrontation between the two powers with a number of US flybys over China’s artificial islands springing both sides into military alert. Earlier this week, Chinese jets intercepted an American reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea, narrowly avoiding a collision.
In March 2016, the US announced an increase in its military presence in the South China Sea. For the first time in decades, conventional American forces are being deployed to bases in the Philippines and will beginning joint patrols with its host country. This is seen to be a counter move to China’s deployment of military assets to its newly created islands. The Pentagon maintains that the action is not meant to be provocative but China has accused the US of hypocrisy and stated they are ready for whatever conflict it might stir up. While surely just bravado, the actions show that the tension between the United States and China is increasing and the South China Sea is a potential flashpoint that must be carefully monitored.
4. America and ASEAN Struggle to Build Anti-China Policy
President Obama has spent a good portion of his final year in office trying to reassure his Pacific allies and partners that his planned “Pivot to Asia” has not been a complete failure. Earlier this year, he hosted the Sunnylands Summit to improve the US-ASEAN relationship with new economic initiatives and to strengthen the trade ties fostered in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, the Summit did not produce what many expected: a strong statement about China’s provocations in the South China Sea. This has led experts to speculate that the leaders were not on the same page in their approach to the problem. However, the fact of the matter is that most member states of ASEAN have differing relations with China and divergent interests in the South China Sea. One country, Cambodia, a strong ally of China, has fought against resolving South China Sea disputes through ASEAN. Further complicating this dynamic are the maneuvers of Russia to expand its role in the region. According to the May 7 Sochi Declaration, Russia and ASEAN are moving to a new strategic partnership for security and trade. All in all, this web of competing territorial claims, economic interdependence and varying geopolitical allegiances makes establishing an anti-China coalition in the South China Sea near impossible, an opening that China has fully exploited.
Under these conditions, the US policy for the South China Sea is to continue the previously mentioned “freedom of navigation” operations to test China’s excessive territorial claims. One major issue that hinders real multilateral progress on these disputes is the fact that the United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), unlike most nations involved in the South China Sea dispute. Although the US recognizes the UNCLOS as codified international law, the Senate has yet to ratify the treaty despite support from the business and military community. In many ways, complying with the UNCLOS would give the United States more legitimacy in dealing with the China.
5. New Leaders in 2016 Are Shaking Things Up
The newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is calling for a different approach towards China. The outspoken strongman has promised friendlier relations with China and more cooperation with the superpower for infrastructure development and resource exploration. He has expressed his frustration with the multilateral approach, which is a mixed signal to send at a time when the previous president, Benigno Aquino III, has strongly asserted the country’s territorial claims and has challenged China in a Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
In Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected President promising to promote her country’s independence and counter Chinese aggression. This has inflamed an already tense relationship and the showdown has implications for the South China Sea, specifically Taiwan’s claim over the disputed Taiping Island. Time will tell if Tsai will take more provocative measures than her predecessor which could escalate into a nationalistic showdown similar to the one between China and Japan over the so called Senkaku Islands in 2012.
There are no signs that China will change its policy, especially under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who famously said that “islands in the South China sea have been China’s territory since ancient times.” This means there will surely be more confrontations in the future and the United States must re-evaluate exactly how it will confront this dilemma. Fortunately, it also seems that the major powers are reluctant to go to war over this territory, an event that would be disastrous for the global economy. It is essential that the US and China mitigate the military fallout from their “close calls” and allow cool heads to prevail and prevent further escalation.