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Disputes in the South China Sea

Michelle Liou

Posted on January 9, 2021 07:01

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Last year, news of the US and China in the South China Sea frequently appeared. China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea waters have antagonized competing claimants and bordering countries. As both US and China have increased their naval presence and military activity in recent years, the region has escalated into a dangerous flashpoint — an area that has a strong possibility of developing into a war.

With an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the South China Sea is one of the most resource-rich regions in the world. Since the 1970s, countries had already begun to claim islands and zones in the South China Sea, aiming for natural resources and fishing areas.

Currently, China claims over 90% of the South China Sea and maintains its sovereignty in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). An EEZ is where a coastal state takes jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in seas 200 miles from the mainland. Since 2009, China has advanced its claims by building artificial islands and increasing the size of its islands to expand its EEZs and jurisdiction. In the past years, China has installed ports, military equipment, and airstrips on numerous islands and has also militarized the Woody islands by adding fighter jets, missiles, and a radar system. 

Amidst China increasing its naval drills and exhibiting its military capabilities, the US and allied coastal states such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan have collectively signaled their disapproval. Protecting the South China Sea is a top priority of the US due to political, security, and economic interests in the region.

For example, America seeks to ensure freedom of navigation and protecting sea lanes of communication (important maritime passages for trade and the movement of naval forces), both of which are threatened by China’s claims. Furthermore, the United States is at risk of being drawn into a military conflict with China in the region because of our defense treaty obligations to the Philippines.

Also, China’s ability to control the South China Sea would allow it to expand its economic influence and manipulate the region in its favor, which would undoubtedly weaken America’s influence and global power.  Consequently, the US has challenged China by conducting Freedom of Navigation operations and military drills and has bolstered support for Southeast Asian partners. 

Nevertheless, China shows no signs of backing down despite efforts from the US and its allies. If any, China has only become more aggressive and adamant. In fact, amid rising tensions last year, China had fired a series of medium-range missiles into the South China Sea, a clear show of dominance and sovereignty over the disputed waters. If the relationship between the US and China further deteriorates, the risk of a military confrontation would significantly increase. 

With President-elect Biden coming into office, US policy towards the South China Sea would likely remain unchanged.  Hopefully, Biden will further deepen bilateral ties in the region and strengthen the Quad initiative (see my Shinzo Abe article) critical to deterring China. Lastly,  Biden’s calmer rhetoric might ease tensions and ultimately decrease the chance of miscalculation and naval war in the South China Sea.

Michelle Liou

Posted on January 9, 2021 07:01

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Source: Al Jazeera

US secretary of state rejects China's claims to the South China Sea as he meets Indonesia's Foreign Minister.

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