It’s the big ‘un of global politics… we’re talking the South China Sea. By popular request we explain why it is so strategically important, the competing claims to it, and how the world is managing China’s increasing presence in the region.
Where is the South China Sea?
The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean, and unsurprisingly is located south of China. To the west is Vietnam, to the east is the Philippines, south of the South China Sea is Malaysia and Brunei and around its perametre are a number of other nations.
What is the South China Sea made up of?
There are 250 islands and reef formations, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged. The major formations are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, the Natuna Islands and Scarborough Shoal. They are spread over an 810 by 900 kilometre area, and the largest island is just 1.3 kilometres long with an elevation of 3.8 metres.
Why is the South China Sea so important?
It is the second busiest trade route in the world, after the English Channel, with one third of the world’s shipping passing through the region, carrying more than $3 trillion in trade each year. For context, all economic activity in Australia is valued at a bit over $2 trillion. The region is particularly important to China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, who rely on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean, for trade.
The region also accounts for about 10% of the world’s commercial fishing grounds, making it an important source of food for hundreds of millions of people. It’s unregulated there too, and that mean’s it’s one of the world’s most exploited fishing grounds.
Thirdly, there are believed to be large gas and oil reserves under seabed, but it’s a highly disputed area so accurate data is hard to get. But substantial reserves found in the surrounding areas suggest that there may be big untapped oil and gas reserves in the SCS. The US Energy Information Administration estimates the area contains at least 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but other estimates double those numbers.
And finally, the ability for a military presence to be established on inlands in the South China Sea make it a very important area strategically. Control ultimately means a cop on the beat, and so the nation with boots on the ground so to speak would have a lot of control in the important region.
What are Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)?
EEZs are the areas off of the coastlines of a nations which it effectively owns and controls. All coastal countries can claim an exclusive economic zone that extends 200 nautical miles from the coastline, and it gives that country special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources within that area. Those rights are guaranteed by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.
What does China lay claim to in the South China Sea?
China has essentially ignored international law, and has laid claim to territories which are a lot closer to the Phillipines, Vietnam and other areas than to China. Despite an international tribunal ruling in 2016 that China had no legal basis for its territorial claims over the sea, China has continued to ignore these rulings, and they coutinue to militarise and fish disputed areas, particularly the resource-rich Spratly Islands. The line they’ve drawn to mark their territorial claims is known as the nine-dash line. China says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, so in 1947 they issued a map with a line on it, known as the nine-dash line which marks the territory of the South China Sea they lay claim to. It is vaguely demarcated and widespread, overlapping with nearly every other countries’ competing claims, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. These disputes have led to much violence in the region, particularly from the 1970s onwards, most of which are between China and Vietnam, or China and the Philippines. The latest violent clash in the region occurred in May 2014, when China started drilling into waters near the Paracel Islands, which led to a standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.
Why is there a fear of China having claim to the South China Sea?
First and foremost, there are international agreements to keep major shipping lanes like the South China Sea open. So there are fears that if China were to gain control over the South China Sea, it would be able to interfere with trade to and from other countries. And that’s actually happened. In 2010, a territorial dispute between China and Japan led to China blocking the supply of rare earth metals to Japan, which are essential materials used in the electronics industry. And China is already attempting to control the waters by using its vessels to harass other countries’ boats and deny access to the area.
There are also concerns that China could also lay claim to various territories within the South China Sea and therefore also control the natural reserves of gas and oil believed to be in the area.
What has China been doing in the South China Sea in recent times?
China has been increasing its military presence in the region, sending out naval patrols and building seven artificial islands with impressive military capabilities. One of the islands that China has built up, Mischief Reef, even has basketball courts, tennis courts and running tracks. A 2016 report from the US Department of Defense estimated that in the few years prior, China had constructed as much as 3,200 acres of new land in the Spratlys. By comparison, the report estimated that the other claimants only claimed up to 50 acres of land between them.
Who is holding China accountable for breaking international laws?
There are a bunch of international agreements and judgements and admonishments about what China is doing, but nothing has been enforced and that means they’ve been able to get on with that work largely unchecked.
How is the US involved?
The US of course does not have any claim to the South China Sea, and only around 6% of its trade is done through the region. But it has become involved in the conflict due to fears China will increase its influence and power in the lucrative region, which threatens that of the US, which has close security ties with a number of countries in the region. So the US can see that the ramifications of China gaining control of the area and increasing its military presence would have significant geopolitical consequences for the US. That’s why the Trump administration has been increasing Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, particularly near disputed areas, which China has been none too happy with.
How are other countries involved?
Japan has partnered with the US on this in its biggest military intervention in the region since the Second World War. The UK and France have also sent naval ships to the region to uphold those principles of freedom of navigation.
How about Australia?
The South China Sea is a region that’s important to us economically and strategically. And as an issue, it’s really at the apex of the conflict we have with China being our biggest trading partner while the US is our biggest ally. But at the end of the day, we need that shipping route to be open so we can get our exports to China, as well as into markets across Asia.
What does the coronavirus pandemic have to do with it?
China has been accused of taking advantage of a “strategic vacuum” created by the Covid-19 crisis to increase its control over the disputed waters. For example, there was a Vietnamese fishing vessel, with eight fishermen onboard, going about its business near the Paracel Islands when it was rammed and sunk by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel in early April. Which was pretty aggressive.