- Exclusive Economic Zones
- Reef building
- Oil and gas reserves
THE South China Sea has long been one of the world’s most coveted waterways. Seven different countries—counting Taiwan, which is itself claimed by China—assert sovereignty over overlapping portions of its waters. The last time waxing and waning tension spilled over into serious conflict was in 1988, when Vietnam lost over 70 lives in a skirmish with China in the Spratly archipelago. But the stakes of any potential relapse into violence are higher than ever now that America is involved.
Chinese maps feature a “nine-dash line” encircling almost all of the sea inside its borders. Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines all contest parts of that area, as does Taiwan, whose claims in the sea mirror China’s. In addition, although Indonesia is not a party to any of the disputes over tiny islands, rocks and reefs, it says the nine-dash line cuts through the “exclusive economic zone” granted to it by the UN Law of the Sea. Like those of other countries, its fishermen complain about Chinese incursions. And every government in the region takes an interest in the sea’s purported hydrocarbon riches. In 2013 the Philippines filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, asking the tribunal to reject China’s claim. The judges will announce their decision on July 12th.
China has said it will ignore the PCA’s ruling, denying that the court has any jurisdiction over what it sees as an issue of sovereignty. But the United States will not allow China to do so unmolested. Although America is formally neutral on the territorial disputes between the littoral states, it says it has a national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the sea, through which one-third of the world’s maritime trade passes. China accuses America of stoking discord between it and its neighbours, and of encouraging them to defy it, while America and most South-East Asian countries see China as the main source of tension. Despite an agreement with the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2002 to avoid provocations, in the past three years China has been engaged in a frenetic building spree, creating seven artificial islands on top of disputed rocks and reefs. Many assume they will one day become military bases.
The United States has already angered China by sending warships close to Chinese-claimed features in the sea on “freedom-of-navigation operations”. Currently, two American aircraft-carrier groups are stationed in the region, apparently to deter China from taking any provocative steps should the PCA’s decision go against it. China, for its part, has been staging naval drills near the Paracel islands to the north of the sea. Further escalation could be likely if China does more than ignore the ruling, and starts building on yet another contested shoal, or declares an Air Defence Identification Zone over a sea it seems to regard as a Chinese lake.