The South China Sea dispute, explained

Feb 18, 2016, 1:50 PM EST
The South China Sea.
Source: thang_tran020107/flickr

Satellite imagery published on Wednesday show that China has placed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, giving a fresh rise to long-running regional tensions over the disputed South China Sea. The island is part of the Paracel chain, which China controls although Vietnam and Taiwan claim it. Far from denying the presence of the missiles, Beijing said that sea and air defenses have been in place for years, which is “appropriate and reasonable” given that it is “our own territory.”

China is also pitted against Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines in making disputed claims over the Spratly Islands further south. Indeed, as regional powers build military outposts and airstrips on these islands to create facts-on-the-ground of ownership, even naturally uninhabitable rocky outcroppings like the Scarborough Shoal are being hotly contested. In light of the continual failure of multilateral negotiations, the South China Sea has seen increasing militarization and unilateral actions from all parties involved. The U.S. seeks to maintain freedom of navigation, and thus is being drawn in to counter China’s sweeping claims over nearly the entire sea. With no sides willing to back down, the risk of clashes grows, and the sum of all fears is war breaking out in this globally critical area. Below, Blouin News breaks down this simmering dispute:

Why does the South China Sea matter?

Three reasons: trade, energy, and national pride.

Each year, one third of global trade (some $5.3 trillion) passes through the South China Sea. This includes 80% of China’s crude oil imports, nearly 60% of the energy supplies of Japan and Taiwan, and about two thirds of South Korea’s energy imports. Dominance or disruption by a hostile power would threaten the entire economies of other states in the region.

The South China Sea also has 7 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves, as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. According to Chinese calculations (which should be taken with a grain of salt), it will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil – second only to the Persian Gulf. Such a treasure trove of oil and gas just offshore would be a boon for any of the fast-growing energy-hungry nations bordering the South China Sea. (Indeed, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has already invested $20 billion in pursuit of these reserves.)

The dispute is also a nationalistic rallying call for all the nations involved. As their economies grow, they are becoming more assertive. The South China Sea is symbolic of their aspirations, and the need to resist unjust encroachment by outsiders. This makes any concessions unlikely, since they would be interpreted at home and abroad as weakness.

Who claims what?

Beijing’s “Nine-Dash Line” claim extends over nearly all of the South China Sea, reaching up to 1,200 miles away from China’s Hainan Island (the southernmost indisputably Chinese territory, near the mainland). Beijing claims the disputed islands have been ruled by China for centuries, de facto trumping the 200-mile exclusive nautical limit of the internationally recognized U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Taiwan and Vietnam also claim much of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and Paracels. The Philippines claims a significant portion of the sea, including eight islands in the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal. Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their UNCLOS economic exclusion zones; Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys and Brunei claims a southern reef in that island chain.

What have previous flashpoints been in the dispute?

  • In July 2012 Beijing formally created Sansha city, an administrative body headquartered in the Paracels to oversee Chinese territory in the South China Sea, angering Vietnam and the Philippines.
  • In late 2012, large anti-China protests broke out in Vietnam following unverified claims that the Chinese navy sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations.
  • In January 2013 the Philippines said it was taking China to a U.N. tribunal to challenge its claims under UNCLOS.
  • In May 2014 China deployed an oil drilling rig into waters near the Paracel Islands, leading to multiple intentional collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.
  • In April 2015 satellite imagery showed China building an airstrip on reclaimed land in the Spratly Island chain.

Where does the U.S. fit in here?

Washington seeks to maintain peace and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Its heavy military presence in East Asia is increasingly being used to check China’s claims with overflights and sail-bys in international waters. Beijing calls these operations "provocations" and violations of its sovereign territory. The U.S. always urges restraint, an end to militarization of the region, and multilateral negotiations to reach solutions acceptable to all.

How likely is war in the South China Sea?

Numerous military bases (of the major competitors) built on islands in the South China Sea have runways capable of launching fighter jets. And now that Chinese surface-to-air missiles are in place, the risks of shooting down a plane in contested airspace have increased. But Beijing would probably not risk shooting down an American plane. And any military clash would generate a huge outcry and a flurry of international efforts to calm down, so escalation to a larger conflict would be very unlikely.

What’s likely to happen next?

When Chinese President Xi Jinping gave Washington the vague assurance last September that China “does not intend to pursue militarization,” he was referring to the Spratly Islands, not the Paracels. Nevertheless, China may go ahead and build up its military presence in the Spratleys, too. The U.S. will keep undertaking freedom-of-navigation overflights and sail-bys, and China will continue to resist multilateral negotiations.

None of the feuding countries will benefit by the status quo -- heightened geopolitical tensions plus low oil prices make exploration and development of the South China Sea’s hydrocarbon deposits unappealing. So the dispute, consisting mostly of words and gestures, will simmer on unresolved.