Why does the South China Sea matter and why is its ownership widely disputed?

For many decades, the South China Sea (SCS) has been a highly contested area between China and other Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia. The area is located in a major strategic zone for trade and maritime navigation and is a source of lucrative natural resources. Three strategically significant areas are located within the SCS:  the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Gulf of Tonkin. About US $5 trillion worth of global trade (around a third of all global trade) passes through the SCS annually, making it one of the top exchange routes in the world. 

In addition to its attractiveness for touristic activities and maritime research, the SCS harbors about US $60 trillion worth of oil and gas reserves and approximately 10% of global industrial fishing in the area. This explains the considerable attention paid from the regional countries that share maritime borders of the SCS. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries have the right to claim territorial waters only if it is within 12 nautical miles as measured from their baseline of the land. However, the Chinese government claims that the SCS falls exclusively under their full jurisdiction as an EEZ (Economic Exclusive Zone), which would extend their sovereign rights to exploit, fish, and navigate up to 200 nautical miles from their coast.

Following the Cold War, the reconfiguration of regional boundaries has opened new political debates about national and cultural identities. From the perspective of the Chinese authorities, the area of the SCS drawn within the “9-dash line” belongs to the People’s Republic of China.  It is based on several historical and geographical features but conveniently ignores the area’s common history shared with other states. However, according to the International Court of Justice, Beijing’s sovereignty claims do not meet historical evidence as the SCS has been a mutual fishing property and maritime route for surrounding countries in the region and not exclusive to the Chinese population. 

How does China successfully assert itself in the SCS despite international laws?

The pursuit of control over the South China Sea is much more than just a matter of resource management; it is also an issue of regional security. In this context, exclusive control of the SCS presents an opportunity for China to expand its sea power and its regional influence. In the north of the Spratly Islands, Beijing took the initiative to build artificial islands which immediately raised major concerns from neighboring countries in terms of environmental and security issues. In response to the regional anxiety, Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared in 2015 that China does not have any intention to militarize the islands. This promise was not kept. In 2016, China permanently installed multiple military and communications bases and implemented offensive weapons (submarines, missiles, and aircraft). At the time when UNCLOS was signed, nobody considered the idea of creating artificial islands as being a conceivable possibility. Thus, through its military engagement (naval patrols and military bases) and exploitation of the EEZ, China meets the standard requirements to claim sovereignty on the Spratly Islands in the SCS under the terms of the UNCLOS. 

Nonetheless, this form of argument assumes that China already had the right to militarize the region in the first place in order to legitimate its occupation. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community has shifted its attention away from the SCS, which has allowed China to further its deployment of surveillance patrol (for instance, the Chinese Coast Guard) and law-enforcement agencies to protect national investment in the Asia Pacific, allowing Beijing to maintain governance and control in the SCS. This shows how the international community has deprioritized Xi Jinping’s nationalistic ambitions and his fiercely competitive foreign policy.

So, why can’t ASEAN seem to organize themselves against China’s dominance? 

One would think that China’s growing dominance over the SCS would compel other surrounding states to unify in opposition. However, the SCS dispute has disproportionately affected South East Asians and as a result, it caused a deep division between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the interests of China. Only four members of ASEAN out of ten are original claimants of the SCS (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei), while the rest (Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, and Laos) have weakened the association’s united front against China by remaining relatively passive third parties. For instance, Vietnam is the only ASEAN country claiming Paracel Islands’ ownership against China based on UNCLOS, but it is hard to have a diplomatic negotiation with China when Beijing doesn’t even recognize the dispute. Thus, the ASEAN countries have not been able to reach a consensus regarding the process for peaceful resolution. 

While some countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are unified in their opposition against China, other states do not share similar political opinions. Pro-China countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, and even Brunei, which is the only claimant of the SCS supporting China, have overlooked China’s assertiveness to become the regional hegemon. Under the fear of economic coercion from their biggest economic partner, they remain cooperative with China to avoid direct consequences. The ASEAN alliance requires major decisions to be made by a unanimous vote, and the alliance has been unable to find consensus to organize collective action in condemning China’s aggression. 

Will the United States decisively step up against China?

Many heads have turned over the United States, who has seen itself as the guarantor of freedom of navigation globally since WWII. While it does not have legitimate claims over the waters, the American government has dedicated significant resources to keep the area free for air and maritime navigation. Despite Donald Trump’s aggressive foreign policy stance and sanctions against China, and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s public statement in July 2020 on the Chinese travel ban, the Trump administration is not as assertive in the matter as previous administrations would have likely been. The Trump administration has weakened many American alliances in the region, notably South Korea and Japan due to the President’s often personalized quarrels over the cost of US military bases and trade in those countries. Contrary to popular belief, Trump is not the first American president to have a tough standpoint against China – many of his predecessors have pressured Beijing. Compelling China to adopt a more collaborative and diplomatic stance on the SCS will require a leader to bring about international cooperation and action.  From pulling out of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of a global pandemic to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump’s unilateral leadership has degraded many international ties and it is unlikely that he can or will fulfill this role. The US has indicated to Southeast Asian countries (and Australia) their reluctance to support them against Beijing’s dominance in the region. 


South East Asia is structurally a ‘maritime system.’ If China succeeds in transforming the regional waters into a strategic national space, China’s political influence will determine the whole dynamic of the region. The failure to resolve the territorial dispute in the SCS through diplomatic means and good faith shows how China has fearlessly made a mockery of international law and it can count on the compliance of its economic partners to overlook any kind of violations. 

The lack of genuine concern and action towards sanctioning China’s aggressive behavior in the region highlights the exploitation of economic and political ties by the Chinese government. Thus, the SCS dispute shows that unchecked rising powers can deliberately violate other countries’ rights with little obstruction from the international community. Meanwhile, the key to avoiding escalation of conflicts should not involve accepting economic coercion and normalizing imperialist policies from a hostile growing regional power. Rather, it should be in the form of an unyielding international system that protects the collective interests of all regional states. Share on facebook Facebook Share on twitter Twitter Share on linkedin LinkedIn

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