Why the South China Sea Fuels US-China Tensions

For decades, the US has guaranteed freedom of navigation in Asia’s waters, patrolling the seas with a view to maintaining the principle that no sovereign state shall suffer interference from another. China is increasingly challenging that status quo, using its growing military power to press long-standing territorial claims. So Washington is moving to reshape its decades-long regional alliances to keep Beijing’s ambitions in check. The tensions are most visible around Taiwan and in the South China Sea. 

1. Where is the South China Sea?

Stretching from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, the waterway encompasses 1.4 million square miles (3.6 million square kilometers), making it bigger than the Mediterranean Sea. To the west it touches Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, and the Philippines and Brunei to the east. It’s a thriving fishing zone — yielding some 10% of the global catch — and holds promising oil and natural gas reserves. A vast amount of trade transits through its waters. In 2016, that amounted to some $3 trillion, including more than 30% of the global maritime crude oil trade.

2. Why is it such a point of contention?

There are conflicting claims to the rocks, reefs and islands therein. China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea and backs up its claim with a 1947 map that shows vague dashes — the so-called nine-dash line —- looping down to a point about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) south of its Hainan island. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan claim parts of the same maritime area, and have sparred with China over which claims are valid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as Unclos. The countries involved have been working on a code of conduct meant to resolve confrontations, though talks have dragged on for two decades. In late August, China released a new map with a “10-dash line”  that appeared to expand its claims over land and waters of its neighbors. Vietnam has meanwhile accelerated reclamation activities in the disputed Spratly Islands to the west of the Philippines. 

3. Has China occupied any of the disputed territories? 

China has reclaimed some 3,200 acres (1,290 hectares) of land on seven reefs or rocks in the Spratly archipelago. On them it has constructed ports, lighthouses and runways, and installed missile batteries and other military equipment. China’s President Xi Jinping told then-US President Barack Obama in 2015 that Beijing had no intention to militarize the structures. Whenever the installation of a new piece of equipment is revealed, China’s Foreign Ministry says it’s for defense purposes.

The US takes no position on the competing claims. But the US Navy regularly carries out “freedom-of-navigation operations” known as Fonops, by sending warships and aircraft near disputed waters to demonstrate the right to travel through what it considers international waters and airspace. The US reportedly carried out five such operations in 2022, down from seven the year before. It has also repeatedly protested against what it calls dangerous and provocative maneuvers by the Chinese against Philippine ships, including the aiming of a military-grade laser at a Philippine ship earlier this year. 

5. How has the international community responded?

An international arbitration panel in The Hague refuted China’s claims in 2016. It ruled there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within seas falling within the nine-dash line. It also found that, under the Unclos, man-made islands — such as those built by China — don’t generate maritime entitlements or zones of sovereignty. The case was brought by the Philippines, which has been the most vocal critic of Beijing’s incursions. China refused to take part in the arbitration, saying the panel had no jurisdiction. 

6. Why are people worried?

The number of run-ins has been rising in tandem with a record number of incursions by Chinese ships in disputed areas. In 2022, China’s Coast Guard maintained near-daily patrols in the waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, an area known for its oil and gas reserves, and near the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands where the Philippines maintains a garrison. The Biden administration and its treaty ally the Philippines have moved to expand defense cooperation, with US forces now able to access some military outposts in the country. With war raging in Ukraine and no sign that the US and China will resolve their differences any time soon, Southeast Asian leaders are increasingly anxious that a conflict could break out in their backyard. 

–With assistance from Karen Leigh.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


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