The South China Sea has long fomented a diplomatic row between China and its neighbors, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All of these countries have staked claim to the 14 islands and underwater formations that lie between China’s south coast, Southeast Asia, the island of Borneo and the Philippine archipelago.
For decades, these islands were the source of constant military and diplomatic chess moves. A critical shipping channel for global commerce, rich in fisheries and a potentially huge source of hydrocarbons, these shoals and sand bars -- often referred to as the Spratly Islands -- have the potential to be yet another geopolitical tinderbox. Controversy over the islands’ sovereignty aroused plenty of bluster from politicians and sparked nationalism within the five countries.
Xi Jinping, the president of China, has invested billions of dollars -- and arguably his legacy -- in securing China’s stake in the South China Sea. “We are strongly committed to safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and security, and defending our territorial integrity,” is one quote widely attributed to the president on the topic.
Last week, the international Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that China has no territorial rights to these islands nor to the South China Sea. China cited what it calls a 2,000-year history of controlling and administering these islands. But the PCA tribunal ruled that the country provided no evidence of exclusive control over the region’s waterways or resources, as in the 14 islands.
China was furious over the ruling, and its government had already made it clear that it would pay no attention to the PCA decision. The Chinese government also said it would refuse any third-party dispute settlement, but would “abide by international law.”
Most of the Chinese government’s vitriol has been directed toward the Philippines, which took the case to the PCA after it accused Chinese military boats of harassing a Philippine oil exploration ship in 2011. The U.S. was ensnared in this ongoing dispute, as it directed military resources to the region. And, while in diplomatic circles, The U.S. made it clear that it sides with China’s rivals. In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the waters as the “West Philippine Sea,” a nod to Manila and its longtime ally while clearly a direct barb at Beijing.
China said it will be business-as-usual in the region. It will continue to build up the region’s reefs, across which the Chinese military has rapidly built military bases, and maintain its presence. “Control over this waterway is critical to realizing Xi Jinping's ‘China Dream’ of national rejuvenation, reunification with lost territories and renaissance of the Chinese nation,” said Dr. Mohan Malik, professor of Asian security with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Dr. Malik’s assessment of China’s claims to the region is aligned with fellow experts, who have documented that China’s sovereignty claims to the South China Sea only date back to the 1940s. Before the Communists ousted the former Republic of China regime, that government’s leadership, led by Chiang Kai-shek, drew a map of the region that enclosed the Spratly Islands and other isles. Chiang’s map eventually morphed into the “nine-dash line” that the Chinese Communist Party now espouses to this day.
“History, growing military power, the need for energy resources and fisheries, the regime's need to rally the people behind the flag in times of economic slowdown and to re-establish Chinese supremacy, the perceived US weakness or pre-occupation, the rise of hyper-nationalism (that displaced Marxism-Leninism), and the growing role of the People’s Liberation Army in decision making -- all these factors combined explain China's push for control over the South China Sea and disregard for international law and reputational costs.” – Dr. Mohan Malik
Meanwhile the U.S. has responded in kind by bolstering its armed forces’ presence within Philippine military installations. While some U.S. military analysts, and Asian allies, insist that the American military bolster its presence in the region, China has long taken a bellicose tone on such a scenario. Chinese navel vessels closed off a portion of the South China Sea to launch some military exercises this week, a move that shows its dismissal of the tribunal’s decision and determination to show that it is a force in the region.
While some analysts suggest that the South China Sea’s oil reserves are a driver behind China’s quest to maintain control over the region, Dr. Malik downplayed that factor--at least for the near term. “The region is not as rich in hydrocarbons as it is made out to be,” Dr. Malik insisted. “Energy resources are a small part of the picture, not the reason or the key driver for China's expansionist moves in the South China Sea.” In any event, even if there are as many as 11 billion barrels of oil under the sea floor, as the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates, current low oil prices have made the price of offshore oil drilling far from cost-effective.
And what about the abundant seafood resources, which surely China covets? Even if its population is expected to increase only slightly the next 35 years and India surpasses it to become the world’s most populous country, China will have a much larger and more affluent middle class. “No doubt,” Dr. Malik replied. “That's why China has spent lots of money on building the largest fleet in the region and going farther south . . . actually, all over the world.”
Do not expect tensions in the region to recede anytime soon. Social media in China responded with fury to the decision. Other governments in the region will likely feel emboldened to test China’s patience. And the U.S. is looking for ways to ensure that the South China Sea does not become another global flash point, though unbridled nationalism is making that difficult on all fronts. Considering many countries’ determination to secure food and energy supplies, no matter what the cost, we can expect the Spratlys to stay at the top of the headlines during the years ahead.
Image credit: Storm Crypt/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.