What’s all the fuss about who gets to sail their ship where? The key part of that question is the “where.” That “where” is the South China Sea. Sure, we’ve all heard about the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but the South China Sea wasn’t at the top of the list of water bodies discussed in any geography class I ever took. In fact, I can’t recall it ever even being mentioned.
To refresh your recollection (or perhaps clue you in), the South China Sea is located in the Western Pacific Ocean and covers approximately 1,400,000 square miles. To put this number in perspective, the sea is larger than the area of India. It is bounded on the north by China–hence the name South China Sea. Other countries bordering the sea include Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Brunei.
The South China Sea is area of immense economic, strategic, and ecological importance. One-third of the world’s maritime shipping passes through it; in fact, it is the second most used sea lane globally. Approximately $3 trillion (that’s trillion with a “T”) in goods are shipped this way each year, and it is a significant trade route for crude oil from the Persian Gulf and Africa. This sea also boasts lucrative fisheries, and huge oil and gas reserves are believed to be underneath its seabed. Additionally, the water body is is estimated to hold one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity.
Who wouldn’t want to control a major trade route rich with natural resources? Unsurprisingly, several countries have made competing territorial claims to the South China Sea. (“It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!”) Both Taiwan and China claim almost the entire sea as their own with China using a demarcation line, the nine-dash line, assigning it approximately 90% of the disputed waterway. Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines take issue with China’s claim saying it contravenes their right to sovereignty and maritime rights as set forth in the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”). Disputes among the countries bordering the South China Sea are regarded as Asia’s most potentially dangerous point of conflict.
To bolster its claim of ownership of much of the South China Sea, China began building military bases on island chains and reefs in this waterbody. Its claim and its military installations threaten offshore resources and pose a security threat to other nations bordering that waterway. But because the sea comprises much of China’s southern border, it has been a doorway for invasion of China in the past and raises security concerns for that country.
China is specifically uneasy about the presence of American forces in the South China Sea area. This concern is well founded as the U.S. has five major military bases in the Philippines and forty bases in Japan and South Korea. America’s largest naval force, the 7th Fleet, is based in Japan, and it operates in the South China Sea on a daily basis. We’d be nervous if the Chinese Navy was hovering around Hawaii, so you can see why China is on edge with the 7th Fleet hanging out on its southern border.
China’s solution has been to make excessive maritime claims to keep other countries from sailing in its backyard. It requires that it be given advance notification or that it provide approval before foreign military vessels may pass through the sea. China has even threatened Philippine aircraft and vessels in the South China Sea area. While talk is cheap, the danger is real. The United States has a 70 year old mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, so if China makes good on its threat, the Philippines could invoke the requirement that the U.S. come to its aid militarily.
International recognition of China’s expansive maritime claims does not exist. Instead, those claims were specifically rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on July 12, 2016 in the case of Philippines v. China. The decision found China had no legal or historic claim to the South China Sea as the country has asserted. China’s view of this ruling? It was a “waste of paper.” The Trump Administration likewise rejected nearly all of China’s significant maritime claims. And, are you sitting down? The Biden Administration agrees with the prior administration’s rejection of such claims. (Are pigs flying somewhere?)
Fast forward to Monday. The USS Benfold entered the waters of the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands without receiving China’s permission to do so. (Imagine tense music playing.) The Chinese ordered them to scram. The U.S. Navy responded that it had consistently sailed unhindered in these waters and that it would continue to do so. Its presence in the South China Sea was characterized as a “freedom of navigation” operation. Of course, it was purely coincidental (wink, wink) the USS Benfold undertook this operation on the fifth anniversary of the denial of Chinese claims by the international court.
Scrapping over who controls what part of the South China Sea is not simply going to go away. That region depends heavily on ship transportation since the transportation infrastructure of the countries adjoining this sea are underdeveloped. Other areas of the world will also be affected by the resolution of the territorial seas issue since the South China Sea is a primary global trade route.
One way this simmering problem will NOT be resolved is by China playing “Battleship” (remember that fun board game?) with other countries whose military vessels ply the South China Sea. Diplomats are much better suited to resolving thorny problems without anyone getting killed than the military. At least we know diplomats won’t arrive at the negotiating table on a boat with lethal firepower. Let’s get the military off the front line of dealing with the issue of whose territory the South China Sea is and let cooler and less volatile heads resting on diplomatic shoulders try to work things out.
Do you blame the Chinese for being edgy with military ships of an unfriendly superpower sailing off their southern border on a regular basis? Are the Chinese being unreasonable for claiming such a vast portion of the South China Sea? Before you read this post, were you even aware this waterway was so important and such a point of conflict?