The South China Sea is a contentious area of the globe that is a hotbed of conflict for nearby states and other players, and serves as a smaller example of the growing tensions between a rising China, its neighbors, and the U.S. To understand the South China Sea conflict one must understand the overarching conflict brewing as China ramps up its international presence.
The South China Sea (SCS) is vitally important for maritime trade. The ChinaPower Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that $3.37 trillion USD worth of trade flows through the SCS every year. Rougly 40% of Chinese trade travelled through the SCS in 2016.
Beneath the surface, rich fisheries as well as oil and natural gas deposits make the SCS even more important. Some estimates report that 10% of all ocean-caught fish come from the SCS and that the industry employs millions in the area. In terms of energy, best estimates from the US Energy Information Administration suggest 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are beneath the waters, while 40% of global liquified natural gas traveled through the SCS in 2017.
The disputes concerning the South China Sea are founded on conflicting and overlapping claims of the waters based on the notion of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) as laid out in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Within its EEZ, a state has the special right to exploration,extraction and utilization of marine resources; the EEZ is defined as stretching 200 nautical miles out from the coast. In the SCS, the EEZ of many states overlap and are contested, especially because of a number of small disputed island chains, such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which are claimed by multiple parties.
Chinese aims in the SCS are almost entirely defensive; China sees the SCS as a place for strategic improvement, and recent actions show a build-up of defensive capabilities. Naval exercises and island-building are outwardly antagonistic towards other regional powers but serve a larger purpose of legitimizing the Chinese claim on the SCS. Contradictorily perhaps, China also wants to maintain good relations with its neighbors in the SCS; maintaining both an assertion of territorial rights and engaging in friendly regional diplomacy — this is a delicate but important act in Chinese foreign policy.
Military exercises run by China often threaten the security of nearby countries with smaller armed forces. Many countries neighboring the SCS have increased the size of their coastal defenses as a counter to the aggression they see from Beijing. Chinese patrol of the SCS reinforces their want to claim the water, and China hopes that by acting as the legal and undisputed claimant to the SCS, it will eventually become so. This practice is not without challenge, though, as U.S. warships frequently move through the area as a way of challenging the Chinese claim, as they did in early February.
China has also built up islands in the SCS, transforming coral atolls into airstrips and naval bases. While China is not the only power to have engaged in this sort of activity, they are the state with the most extensive operation, with an estimated 3,200 acres of new land being created since 2013. In building up these islands, China not only provides itself with the means of defense it desires in the SCS, but hopes to legitimize its claim to the waters around the islands under the UN convention that laid out the notion of EEZ in the first place.
Role of ASEAN
ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is a regional bloc that aims to find political, economic, and social common ground among its ten members. This organization borders the SCS and contains prominent players in the ongoing dispute, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. As China flexes its muscle in the area, ASEAN is being forced into action to ensure that the needs of member states are met and that rights are respected in regard to the SCS. In August of 2018, at the annual ASEAN summit, a breakthrough in the SCS conflict was made in the form of a draft of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC), which sought to regulate behavior in the area. Proceedings on the COC are slow and difficult for several reasons, including “the undefined geographic scope of the South China Sea and disagreement over dispute settlement mechanism” and the undefined legal status of the COC. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to the COC is the United States, which does not want to lose influence in the region to an ASEAN-Chinese agreement, especially one that might allow the Chinese to maintain their presence on reclaimed islands and naval bases in the sea.
The U.S. is the most notable power, not in the region of the SCS, that still plays a role in this conflict. There is a belief among some U.S. policymakers and military leaders that China seeks to turn the South China Sea into its own “personal lake” by way of reclaiming islands and patrolling the waters, or that China seeks hegemony in the region. This kind of thinking has driven U.S. policy concerning the SCS in recent years and in early May of 2019. These military maneuvers were meant to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the free navigation of the region and unrestricted access to the trade routes through the SCS. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said of the May incident that “China urges the U.S. to stop such provocations, respect China’s sovereignty and security interests and regional countries’ efforts to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
In the eyes of China, the U.S. is the provocateur in the region; the reverse is true for U.S. policymakers. The frequent conflict between China and the U.S. over the SCS is one piece of a larger conflict taking place between the two powers. China has steadily been increasing its international presence as of late and this rise has threatened the role and security of the United States in the international system. The SCS conflict offers a way the U.S. can continue to check the rise of China and potentially get other powers to do the same, while at the same time promote its interest of free navigation through international waters.