The South China Sea Dispute: Why it’s so important

Since 1947 when the ROC (Taiwan) published the first map claiming territory in almost the entire South China Sea, a dispute has been raging on between China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. 

On July 2, 2017, the USS Stethem warship sailed within 12 miles into the “territorial limits” of Triton Island, claiming it was part of its “freedom of navigation” operations. This is not the first time an American warship has sailed into the SCS. In October 2015, the USS Decatur sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands chain.

“UN rules dictate that any territory can claim the waters up to 12 nautical miles from its coast. The sailing of an American ship within those limits indicates the US does not recognise those territorial claims.” BBC writes. Being naturally provoked, China immediately sent ships and fighter jets to the island as a warning.

The SCS dispute is one that America is not a part of, so why would the US try to intervene now?

Why is the SCS contentious and so important?

First of all, what is a “freedom of navigation” operation? This procedure is from an American program, in which every time there is a claim that the US does not recognize, an aircraft carrier or a ship is sent to the area – while they are scrupulous about maintaining international protocol in the waters, it is their way of telling people (in this case, the Chinese) that America doesn’t recognize their claims to these waters. In some cases, these “freedom of navigation” operations have become provocative and resulted with military confrontation.

Now, let’s talk about the EEZ. The exclusive economic zone is the zone where the US and other coastal nations have jurisdiction over national resources.

First off, the South China Sea is a crucial point in both economy and trade, where many global sea routes coalesce; one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet passes through these points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. That’s 30% of the world’s trade going through these waterways.

Two-thirds of S. Korea’s energy supplies, 80% of China’s crude oil imports, and 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies is transported in through the South China Sea. That means that without the SCS, these major countries would not only be lacking in energy, but finished and unfinished goods as well, blowing major damage to the economy. To be able to control the SCS would mean being able to have a monopoly over all trade in the region.

In addition to the importance of location, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 11 billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. And if calculations from China are correct, then the SCS contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. This is why some call the South China Sea “the second Persian Gulf”. 

Back to the EEZ – potentially, if China continues to claim the islands and keep building man-made islands as its territory, it could further expand its EEZ within 200 nautical miles of the islands. China would not only dominate politically and economically, but they would also be in control of all of these resources, theoretically boosting China’s power to #1.

How has China “militarised” the South China Sea? Why is it important to China, and why is America intervening?

China, in a sense, has been avoiding legality, and is backing themselves up with military power. They have already begun in reclamation projects in the SCS, dredging sand from the ocean floor (which is extremely harmful for the environment) and extending the size of the seven reefs they are occupying.

China has already constructed three airfields, capable of supporting bombers and large transport aircraft; this would mean heavy geopolitical consequences for the US.

So why is China willing to fight for the SCS? Apart from its political and economic advantages, the SCS would also mean wonders for their naval strategy, including blockading Taiwan and power projecting into the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It would mean being able to interfere with Japanese and South Korean trade.

This is would be one of America’s more considerable losses: alliances. To maintain its geopolitical position in the western Pacific, the US must defend their regional alliance system, and reassure local powers who are wary of China’s intentions and its theoretical effects. China gaining the SCS would mean that America’s overall political presence – and the alliance system – would be undermined. China would replace America as the lead power, and countries looking for boosts would slowly gravitate away from the US and towards China.

The true purpose of the “freedom of navigation” operations is to send a message to China: that America wasn’t about to back down as the lead power. All things considered, America is likely to be much more aggressive in this area of America’s erosion under the Trump administration.


 My take on this event:

All things considered, I think of both China and Taiwan as my home. While this major boost for China would be highly beneficial, it may disrupt the political and geopolitical balance of the world. A clear solution here would be to divide the SCS between the countries, but that may not be a decision that some will agree to.

This situation once again links back to Trump’s phone call with Tsai Ing-wen – that was the first straw pulled out of the diplomatic convention between America and China. So what are some possible things that America might do, in my and other expert’s opinions?

For starters, America may decide to form an American South China Sea naval team that would be based in the SCS to show assertiveness over Chinese domination of the area. Trump may also decide to strengthen political and security ties with Japan and South Korea, and form a coalition of powers to stand up against China. 

Politics is a never-ending game of moves that cause either detrimental losses or victorious wins. So who will win this time? China, or America?

 

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