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A Flash Point in the South China Sea

September 15, 2015
Today, it is hard for any foreign policy issue to stay in the spotlight for long. There is just too much competition and too few headlines. The crisis in Ukraine, Assad’s atrocities in Syria, the rise and resiliency of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa, the narrowly averted Greek exit from the Eurozone, continued tension in Afghanistan, and many more issues have collectively contributed a global situation that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has called, “the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years.” As all of these issues come in and out of the public eye, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea simmer in the background, relatively calm, but with the potential to quickly escalate into the fore front of international security concerns.

By David Cornell, C’16

South China Sea

For a bit of background, the South China Sea (SCS) is a sea region approximately one and a half times the size of the Mediterranean. It includes over 200 land features in an area stretching between the northern border of Singapore and the Strait of Taiwan. Annually, over 5.3 trillion dollars of trade pass through the SCS, which includes 50% of the world’s total trade and 40% of the world’s energy trade. The Malacca Strait, the southern gateway to the SCS, has eclipsed both the Panama Canal and the Strait of Hormuz as the most critical trading waterway in the world.

Maritime/Territorial Dispute

The volume of global trade and locally present energy resources have led to the SCS becoming the single most disputed sea region in the world. There are overlapping territorial claims from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei (illustrated in Fig.1). These overlapping claims make the SCS a potential flashpoint for large-scale armed conflict. Any such conflict could easily disrupt international trade and would may spread beyond the SCS, due to the fact that the United States, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, and Japan all also have a significant stake in the region. As such, it is very possible that a local conflict in the SCS could expand into a major power conflict involving China, the US, or both.

South China Sea Maritime Claims

Old Disputes

These maritime/territorial disputes are decades old, and incidents between claimants have been occurring periodically for years. To some, the fact that these incidents have not sparked large scale combat since China’s 1974 seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam is a testimony to the region’s stability. However, recent upticks in tensions have raised deep concerns in the region and among those who rely on the region’s trade routes. There is serious apprehension, among interested parties, that prior stability is waning as a result of increased competition over trade routes and resources.

New Tensions

New competitions have increased the stakes for all claimants. As the SCS becomes more important to each regional actor, it also becomes more volatile for the region as a whole.

New drivers of competition include:

  • Energy and fishery resources. Such competition has long been a factor in the region, but it has been heightened in the last decade by the growing needs of rapidly expanding Asian economies.
  • China’s rise and uncertainty about its strategic intentions. It is clear that China has grown increasingly assertive in all aspects of its foreign policy. Many policy analysts, such as Dr. Van Jackson at the Center for New American Security, have noted that the Chinese appear to be utilizing a policy of creeping aggression, wherein they gradually alter the status quo without being so disruptive that they incur serious international condemnation. What is less clear, though, is the exact nature of the long-term strategic objective this policy pursues.
  • Rising importance of national image as part of domestic politics in several of the disputing countries. The rising sense of nationalism in China, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have made it difficult for those governments to compromise or negotiate without losing domestic support.

China’s aggressive stance has been the most disruptive driver of competition. The Chinese have declared ‘undisputable sovereignty’ over 80% of the SCS. In order to implement that declaration, they have used their Navy and Coast Guard to harass foreign vessels. In addition, China has begun constructing artificial islands, some even large enough to include airstrips, which they can use to project airpower into the region. Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Security International Studies, recently wrote a piece about the Chinese motivation for their island construction campaign: http://amti.csis.org/on-the-defensive-china-explains-purposes-of-land-reclamation-in-the-south-china-sea/

US Interests

Although the US does not take on official position on the specific maritime/territorial claims in East Asia, we do have a defensive treaty obligation with the Philippines, which could be invoked in the case of active conflict. The US, consequently, has an even greater interest in the peaceful resolution of the SCS disputes, which adds to our standing interests in ensuring maritime freedom of navigation and maintaining international order.

International Dispute Settlement Mechanisms

Two major international institutions are particularly relevant to the SCS disputes, ASEAN and the UN through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The former, ASEAN, has been a key player in diplomacy over the South China Sea since its creation in 1967. In 2002, ASEAN’s members and China agreed on a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS, which outlined principles for avoiding conflicts but did not create any specific mechanisms to solve conflicts once they arose.

None of the parties involved want these disputes to lead to conflict. However, the inability to find peaceful solutions forces the claimants to assert their claims through aggressive action. This carries the risk of mistaken or miscalculated clashes, which could spark larger conflicts. If that were to ever happen, the impact to global trade would be unpredictable and, inevitably, very expensive. 

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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