A simmering conflict: The possibility of war in the South China Sea

Guest writers Anmol Rattan Singh and Tejvir Bawa discuss the South China Sea dispute

The South China Sea (SCS) bears the label of being the most controversial maritime space in the world. Geographically, it is a semi-enclosed ocean body shared and surrounded by six countries, namely (clockwise from the north): The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan (Republic of China), Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Vietnam. The South China Sea dispute can be understood as a convergence of power politics and political economy with overlapping sovereignty claims. This dispute was primarily considered to involve China and other littoral states (Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines); however, as Robert. D. Kaplan states, The battle of the South China Sea would be the defining battle of the 21st century.” This article intends to shed light on the major reasons behind the conflict, while also highlighting the rising militarization and weaponization that has occurred and continues to occur as a result of the conflict. 

Contemporary origins and the underlying resource dimension 

Based on recent events, it is apparent that China’s behavior sets the tone of the conflict. Of all the four disputed chains of islands in the SCS, the Paracel chain is the one that China’s military can most easily access. It was here that the initial conflict emerged when South Vietnam occupied the Western Paracels in 1974. This naval skirmish was a consequence of the South Vietnamese government’s declaration that it would be awarding eight oil exploration contracts to some western companies. Then, in 1988 another pre-eminent clash took place between China and Vietnam over the very same Spratly Islands. This clash witnessed a much more brutal China capturing the Western Spratlys through its naval forces. 

That said, a peculiar shift to proactive overrunning took place in 1992 when China started occupying the Mischief Reef– an atoll already claimed by the Philippines as its territory. This gave a rather peculiar angle to the dispute, one which influenced and impinged on the status of ASEAN states’ sovereignty. 

Aside from these clashes, an important element fueling the coercive behaviour of China is the presence of undersea hydrocarbon reserves (an aspect which gives the dispute a parallel resemblance to the eastern Mediterranean dispute). As reported by the World Bank, The SCS holds a proven oil reserve of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas”. Nevertheless, this is not a solitary reason for China’s aggression. The region also holds massive mineral deposits of titaniferous magnetite, zircon, monazite, tin, gold and chromite. Moreover, the South China Sea caters to an annual global trade worth $5 trillion. It acts as a linking channel for East Asia to Europe and Africa, while functioning as the main trade route for unfinished goods between ASEAN, Japan and China (something which makes the domain critical to global trade.) 

Proliferating militarization and weaponization 


Currently, China claims about 90 percent of the SCS as its sovereign territory. With its mission to become a world power, China views the SCS as an opportunity to show its commitment to claiming what it feel historically belongs to them. Since declaring sovereignty over the sea in 2009, China has shown a deep commitment to defend this area. 

It began creating artificial islands under the Xi Jinping regime in 2012, adding 3,200 acres of land to seven uninhabitable features in the Spratlys one of them being the Fiery Cross Reef, an underwater reef, which was turned into a 270 acre island airstrip in 2014. The development of the islands into civilian and military bases by China gives them a strategic and legitimate value in the international sphere. Some of the pivotal developments include building facilities for its army on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and deploying the People’s Liberation Army Navy and People’s Liberation Air Force forces to the newly created bases. 

China has indeed created a vital naval, marine coast guard and maritime might, something that has been reiterated by the U.S. Department of Defense.“The People’s Liberation Army Navy is the largest navy in the Indo Pacific, featuring at least 300 ships along with numerous submarines, amphibious ships, patrol crafts and specialized ships,” the Department of Defense said The Pentagon also noted that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Command-in-Charge of SCS operations (Southern Theatre Navy) maintains in its inventory, 4 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, two nuclear-powered attack submarines, 16 diesel-powered attack submarines, 11 destroyers, 19 frigates, 11 corvettes, 3 amphibious transport docks, 10 tank landing ships, 9 medium landing ships and 24 missile patrol craft.” 

In 2018 the Indo-Pacific Command Commander, Admiral Phil Davidson raised his concerns that, “Once occupied by the PLA forces China will be able to expand its influence thousands of miles to the South and project power deep into Oceania.” He added further that China could use these bases to challenge other presences it views as foreign to the region, and its military would be capable of humming any other claimants of the region. Indeed, the multiple fortifications of forward-operating bases with anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, sensor radars and underground storage facilities hint toward such a vision. 

Vietnam and Indonesia 

Consequently, with the growing call of threat, the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) has increased its capability to retaliate. The VPA has installed anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities that contain Russian-built kilo-class submarines accompanied by a contemporary network of anti-access missiles. Its fleet has also acquired SU-30 MK 2 multirole aircraft, which has the capacity to annihilate targets throughout the SCS. Derek Grossman of RAND reported, “Vietnam has also greatly expanded its Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) presence, and is now fielding the second largest regional force which is larger than those of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia combined.” 

Even Indonesia has also been reluctant to give up its claim on the Natuna Islands. In 2017, Indonesia renamed the waters of the North Natuna Islands to North Natuna Sea’ in order to highlight its presence. Indonesian President Joko Widodo encouraged military mobilization, calling for the establishment of a ‘Minimum Essential Force’ by 2024. This would be done through ensuring requisite naval, air and maritime capabilities to defend Indonesia’s claims and to pursue its aspirations. Indonesia also maintains SU-30 MK 2 multirole aircrafts and flexes the Kongsberg Norwegian Advanced Sam System, a multi-range air defence system. 

Intervention by the United States 

As a crucial conduit for maritime trade, the SCS has attracted a lot of attention from the United States. Initially, United States intervention in the region was motivated by its Cold War agenda, however, in the wake of the cessation of the Cold War, U.S. interest in the region was re-ignited because of its involvement in energy exploration with the littoral states. This interest has been threatened by Chinese expansionism. Several encounters between American and Chinese arships occurred in 2009, culminating in a standoff between the USNS Impeccable and five Chinese-flagged vessels. This growing antagonism between the two countries has also provided ASEAN ample opportunity to restructure its cooperation, thereby significantly hampering Chinese expansionism. 

In 2018, the United States flew its B-52 H Stratofortress bombers into the region as a show of its force. During the same time, the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces also practiced sailing and combat drills. Within Japan, the United States maintains a large number of military bases with defense facilities. On January 24, 2022, another set of US aircraft carriers were reported in the SCS while the Chinese Air Force flew 39 aircraft near Taiwan.

US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral John.C.Aquilino recently said in an interview, Over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since world war two by the PRC. They have advanced all their capabilities and that buildup of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.” Another recent statement released by the U.S. Navy stated that “the US forces have been operating on a daily basis in the South China Sea as they have been for more than a century. This is sufficient evidence to believe that the United States will not abandon the South China Sea. 


In conclusion, it can be asserted that the status of the SCS dispute depends largely upon the activities undertaken by China. A critical role is played by the nine-dash line policy adopted by China, which undermines the EEZs and legal jurisdictional claims of other littoral states, creating an environment of trepidation and conflict. The international law established in the 1950s and its obligations have been met with ignorance and selfish intent. Besides, the attempt at peaceful bilateral resolution has been disrupted by the growth of military weaponization in the region. Even Indonesia is facing significant breaches of its EEZs by China, a sign that China is expanding its assertive behavior at a much faster pace now. Evidence suggests that not only China but other states like Vietnam and Indonesia have made ambiguous and unilateral claims that resulted in frequent clashes. Finally, the United States’ role as the Global Ambassador of Peace is increasingly being challenged by Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, diminishing the likelihood of a peaceful resolution. 

Anmol Rattan Singh is pursuing Masters in Public Policy and Governance from Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi and is deeply interested in international relations and geo-politics. 

Tejvir Bawa is a final year political science student at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest are energy security, military history and war studies. 

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