The South China Sea is fast emerging as a regional hot spot as its contested waters become more congested raising the risk of a deadly naval engagement through misadventure. These risks are magnified by rising jingoism, resource nationalism and militarization.
Tensions are rising as China presses its claims to all of the islands and eighty percent of the waters in the South China Sea. This year China adopted more confrontational tactics towards the Philippines and Vietnam in order to assert sovereignty claims. Both countries have turned to the U.S. to counter balance China.
The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed maritime area that straddles the world’s second most important sea-lanes. Nearly half of global shipping and an estimated seventy percent of crude oil imported by China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan passes through the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is dotted with several hundred islands, islets, rocks, reefs, shoals, and sand banks. These features are grouped into two archipelagos, Paracels and the Spratlys.
It is estimated that between 43 and 48 islands, rocks and other features in the Spratlys are currently occupied. Vietnam possesses between 21-25 islands and rocks, the Philippines 8-9, China 7-8, Malaysia 5-6, and Taiwan, one. China occupies all of the Paracel Islands but sovereignty is contested by Vietnam.
The South China Sea is host to one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds. The South China Sea reportedly contains rich reserves of oil and gas. The extent of hydrocarbon reserves is not known precisely. China regularly provides estimates that are several orders of magnitude greater than those provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Under international law, the littoral states of Southeast Asia are entitled to claim a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from their coastlines and around their islands that entitles them to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over the resources in this area.
China bases its claims to sovereignty on historic rights. In 2009 it officially issued a map containing nine-dash lines forming a u-shape enclosing the South China Sea. This u-shaped line cuts deeply into the EEZs claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. China claims all the islands that lie within this area including those currently occupied by other states.
Since 2009 China has asserted it claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea by aggressively enforcing an annual unilateral fishing ban. In April this year, Chinese civilian ships prevented the Philippines from arresting illegal Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal by physically blocking access. During the two- month stand off China dispatched nearly one hundred fishing craft to occupy the shoal. China also applied economic sanctions by banning the import of bananas and cancelling tourist charter flights.
Chinese civilian vessels have also interfered with the commercial operations of oil exploration vessels in waters lying with its u-shaped line. In 2011, Chinese ships drove off an oil exploration vessel in Philippine waters and twice cut the cables of oil exploration vessels in Vietnam’s EEZ.
In June, when Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a Law of the Sea covering its EEZ and islands, China retaliated by issuing nine exploration leases in blocks falling entirely within Vietnam’s EEZ. China then elevated the administrative status of Sansha City and gave it jurisdiction over the South China Sea. China also announced that it was establishing a military garrison in the Paracels and commenced “combat ready” patrols.
Vietnam has responded to Chinese assertiveness by building up its military capabilities. Vietnam has taken delivery of Su-30MK jet aircraft and stealth frigates. Vietnam has also ordered six Kilo-class fast attack submarines. All of these platforms will be armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. The Philippines has embarked on more modest arms build up.
Tensions in the South China Sea are overlayed by strategic rivalry between China and the United States. China is rapidly developing anti-access/area denial capabilities designed to force the U.S. Navy from operating in international waters off China’s coast.
China’s naval base on Hainan island houses a growing number of modern surface combatants as well as nuclear attack submarines. On several occasions China has challenged U.S. military aircraft and ships operating in waters off Hainan. China has also threatened to impose sanctions against American oil companies operating in China if they assist Vietnam in developing its offshore oil and gas resources.
The Obama Administration responded to Chinese military and commercial pressures, as well as lobbying from Southeast Asian states, by declaring that the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded commercial activities.
The Obama Administration opposes the threat or use of force to settle territorial disputes in the South China Sea and advocates a collaborative diplomatic approach to resolve them. China counter argues that territorial disputes must be solved bilaterally by the states concerned. China also argues that the United States is an outsider with no standing in the matter.
On August 3, when the State Department noted that the establishment of a military garrison in the Paracels as well as other Chinese actions risked escalating tensions, China responded by summoning the deputy chief of the U.S. Mission in protest. The People’s Daily editorialized, “we are entirely entitled to shout at the United States, ‘Shut up’. How can meddling by other countries be tolerated in matters that are within the scope of Chinese sovereignty?.”
Yet a month earlier when Southeast Asian foreign ministers attempted to draft a joint communiqué mentioning recent incidents at Scarborough Shoal and in Vietnam’s EEZ, China intervened behind-the-scenes to scuttle the statement.
The United States policy of rebalancing its military forces in the Asia-Pacific seemingly has put it on a collision course with a rising and more assertive China. The risks of conflict in the South China Sea appear to be growing as China’s domestic power shift takes place in an environment of growing jingoism, resource nationalism and militarization.
CARLYLE A. THAYER is Emeritus Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.