After leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, China becomes a priority of American foreign policy. The South China Sea is one of the most troubled spots on the world map. This is where the interests of several countries converge, primarily China and the United States. Due to the large presence of the military in the region, the situation can worsen at any time. Understanding why the territorial dispute in the South China Sea could be the beginning of a new big war.
Last week, US Vice President Kamala Harris embarked on her first tour of Southeast Asia. Speaking at a press conference in Singapore, she lashed out at China for the country’s alleged “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea. Harris’ attack came against the backdrop of growing tensions in this area and the deterioration of US-China relations.
“Beijing continues to press, intimidate and lay claim to most of the South China Sea,” Harris said. A-ccording to her, this region is critical to the security and prosperity of the United States, and therefore is a priority for Washing-ton’s foreign policy. In conclusion, the vice president pledged that the United States would not abandon its allies in the face of danger. Who, according to Harris, is a danger, there is no need to guess.
Who’s arguing in the South China Sea?
The dispute in the South China Sea has been going on for more than a decade and affects at least six states – China, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan (an unrecognized state), Malaysia and the Philippines. All of them claim their rights to these waters and to the two groups of islands located in them – the Paracel Islands (claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan) and the Spratly archipelago (claimed by China, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines).
The dominant position in the dispute is occupied by China, which considers 90% of the discussed territories to be its integral part. It is an area of over 1 million square miles that stretches from Taiwan to Malaysia. Beijing bases its rights to this region on the post-war map of 1947, also known as the “Nine-Dotted Line”.
However, neighboring countries and the international community consider these claims illegal, citing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the provisions on free navigation. In July 2016, an international tribunal, created through the mediation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, ruled on the claim of the Philippines that China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea were unfounded. Beijing did not recognize the jurisdiction of the Hague Court.
Why are these islands important?
Control over the South China Sea is primarily important due to logistics routes and natural resources. About 40% of all world trade traffic passes through the local sea routes, as well as the Strait of Malacca, and up to 80% of China’s oil and gas imports are transported.
In addition, significant reserves of hydrocarbons were found here in the early 1970s. According to experts from the US Geological Survey, they amount to 11 billion barrels of oil and 5.9 trillion cubic meters of gas. According to Chinese scientists, 230 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas lie in the depths of the South China Sea.
In 2015, the South China Sea accounted for 12% of the world’s total fish catch. For China, with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, this is a very important resource. It is also no less significant for other countries in the region – Indo-nesia, Brunei, Vietnam, M-alaysia and the Philippines, where a total of about 500 million people live.
Control over the South China Sea also provides military advantages, which in the end could become a decisive factor in a dispute over natural resources. In addition, these waters are important for the exit of Chinese submarines with ballistic missiles into the Western Pacific for the nuclear deterrence of the United States.
What is Beijing doing?
Since 2013, the Chinese side has been building military fortifications and artificial islands in the region, as well as mining and fishing. The creation of artificial islands allowed the PRC to claim economic zones within 200 nautical miles from each of them.
In 2014, the PRC officially proclaimed its rights to the Spratly archipelago, while simultaneously sending warships there. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency In-itiative, a Washington-ba-sed research center, China currently has 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and se-ven in Spratly in the South China Sea. We are talking about radar stations, runw-ays, anti-aircraft guns, cem-ent and desalination plants, etc.
At the same time, the Chinese authorities deny the very existence of the problem of freedom of navigation. Beijing points out that 60% of China’s foreign trade turnover goes through these waters, and therefore, Beijing is most interested in the freedom and convenience of navigation in the South China Sea.
What does the USA have to do with it?
Despite its geographic distance, the United States plays a key role in the dispute over these waters. Washington does not at all claim reefs or islands, but accuses Beijing of militarizing the region and creating threats to international shipping. Last year, the US tightened its Chinese policy and backed the 2016 Hague Tribunal ruling, calling China’s maritime claims “completely illegal.”
To ensure “freedom of navigation”, the United States and its allies regularly send warships to the area, which invariably provokes protests and outrage in Beijing.
“Someone might say that the settlement of disputes in the South China Sea is not the business of the United States, which has no claims there. But this is our business, and even more, it is the responsibility of each country to uphold the principles that we have agreed to follow in order to peacefully settle disputes at sea, “- said in early August, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In his first address to Congress as President, Joe Biden indicated that the United States intends to maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific “not to start a conflict, but to prevent it.” However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these aspirations. Because of this, the situation in the disputed waters remains tense. As the largest economies in the world, both China and the United States are primarily fighting for influence in a strategically important and financially promising region.
What is happening in these waters now?
Despite the fact that the dispute in the South China Sea has been going on for more than a decade, in the past few months the situation there has escalated.
In early May, the Philippine Foreign Ministry demanded that China “get out of the way” after the appearance of hundreds of Chinese boats in the country’s economic zone. Beijing responded by saying that they did not violate borders. In June, the Malaysian military had to raise fighters to escort Chinese planes invading their airspace. Beijing noted that the pilots conducted regular maneuvers and acted in accordance with international law.
In July, the PRC Ministry of Defense protested the US in connection with the “invasion of the American destroyer” Benfold into the territorial waters of China near the Paracel Islands. In August, PRC forces conducted five-day military exercises along some sections of the waterway. This came just days after the United States launched the largest military maneuvers in the last 40 years involving Britain, Australia and Japan in the Indo-Pacific region. For the first time in almost 20 years, Germany sent its ship to the South China Sea. Last week, ships of the Indian, Japanese, Australian and US naval forces began joint exercises “Malabar” in the western part of the Pacific Ocean.
The day after Kamala Harris’ statement in Singapore, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the United States military presence in the South China Sea unacceptable and expressed strong protest over Washington’s intentions to send warships to this water area.
Will the region become a war arena?
Due to the constantly growing military presence, there is a risk of collision. Especially in conditions in which countries defiantly ignore each other’s interests. “In many ways, the disputes over the South China Sea are today’s version of the Balkans of the early twentieth century, where” some insignificant stupidity “can provoke a destructive global conflict that has no precedent and beyond our imagination,” – said on the pages of the Japanese analytical publication The Diplomat.
“Both countries (China and the United States – TASS note) have well rehearsed military plans in case of real fighting in the South China Sea,” wrote US Navy veteran James Stavridis in a column for Bloomberg. In his opinion, such a scenario may well become the beginning of a third world war.
At the same time, the local trade routes are of fundamental importance for the entire global economy, therefore, the transition of the conflict to a hot phase is actually not beneficial to either Beijing or Washington. Most likely, “controlled tension” will remain in the water area.
To avoid military conflict, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continues to work with China on an official code of conduct in disputed waters. This agreement was discussed unsuccessfully for many years, but in November 2018, China said it hoped to complete consultations on the document within the next three years (starting in 2019).