What’s Going on in the South China Sea?

Energy politics, territorial ambitions and coronavirus converge in contested waters

By Alison O’Neil

USS Rushmore and USNS Walter S. Diehl operate in the South China Sea in 2014
(Wikimedia Commons)

While the world remains distracted by coronavirus, other events have captured the attention of China watchers.  Even as rumors continue to swirl regarding the decline of Kim Jong Un – a potential disaster for Beijing, which could face an influx of refugees upon the Supreme Leader’s death – China’s activity in the South China Sea has sounded alarms among Western security specialists.  The US, joined by an Australian frigate, has sent ships to the disputed waters amidst growing complaints that China has overstepped its bounds in the region.  What precipitated this tense scenario, and why has the US become involved?

China has long maintained activity in the South China Sea, a key global shipping route.  The last few months, however, have seen an increase in Chinese operations.  China has spent several years building artificial islands in the region, but Beijing recently announced the opening of two new research stations that, according to the New York Times, are “equipped with defense silos and military-grade runways.”  The Times further reports that last weekend, China laid claim to two new reef-based administrative districts among the Paracel and Spratly Islands.  Some of these reefs lack territorial rights under international law but are still claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

China has stepped up its activity not only on its artificial islands, but also within the contested waters themselves.  Japan’s most recent complaint stems from Chinese coast guard vessels’ entry into Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands on the 21st.  Beijing’s actions have garnered special ire from Hanoi in recent weeks, ever since a Chinese ship sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in early April.  The Philippines, which experienced a similar incident when China sank one of its fishing vessels in June 2019, backed Vietnam’s rebuke.  Moreover, a Chinese destroyer ship – ironically dubbed the Wuhan – is currently operating off the coast of Malaysia.  Although other Chinese ships are currently circulating around Malaysia for more routine purposes (the provision of coronavirus PPE, for instance, as well as oil exploration), the presence of the Wuhan has raised alarm about China’s intentions towards the oil-rich nation.  Several states have accused China of provoking international incidents while surrounding countries and the US remain distracted by the pandemic.

The roots of the South China Sea dispute go deeper than the events of 2020, or even 2019.  Tensions in the region came to a head in 2016, when the International Criminal Court pushed back against China’s territorial claim (the so-called “nine-dash line,” which encircles the Gulf of Tonkin as well as a number of shoals and reefs off the Philippine coast).  Several states got involved, with different states claiming different parts of the South China Sea region.  Vietnam and China each presented documents claiming their right to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, while the Philippines made an argument based on proximity.  A tribunal, backed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruled in favor of the Philippines.  The tribunal stated that China had caused “irreparable damage” to the marine environment while violating the Philippines’ drilling rights in the area.  China ignored the ruling, constructing militarized artificial islands on the region’s reefs and claiming them as Chinese land.  Since then, the US has maintained that these islands are international property and belong to no state.  It has occasionally conducted naval exercises in the area, intending to keep the peace between states that wish to claim the territory.

A map of the South China Sea with China’s contested “nine-dash line”
(Wikimedia Commons)

Why has China taken such an interest in this vast and seemingly empty body of water?  Beijing’s most obvious motive lies in the South China Sea’s reserves of oil and methane hydrates, energy-rich natural gas deposits encased in balls of ice.  China’s state media reported on a second major extraction – 861,400 cubic meters – of natural gas from methane hydrates on March 26, a drilling operation that had lasted for a month.  (The first of these experimental extractions took place in 2017.)  China’s appetite for energy is no secret: the PRC’s rapidly expanding middle class will soon be calling for cars, and by extension oil.  Meanwhile, China’s drive to build its military necessitates a dramatic increase in energy resources.  China’s pioneering energy projects (the massive Three Gorges Dam, for instance, as well as the over 10,000 solar technology patents China has filed) provide the PRC with a great deal of energy.  Still, new innovations – not to mention China’s substantial coal reserves – cannot produce enough energy to power the PRC Xi has envisioned.  For this reason, Beijing has spearheaded the expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), alternatively known as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR).  This ambitious project aims to expand overland access to oil and natural gas through a series of pipelines, roads, and economic corridors that connect China to the energy reserves of Central Asia and the marketplaces of Europe.

While some BRI projects have faltered due to factors ranging from coronavirus to simple economics, enough China-backed power plants and pipelines will soon pop up across Central Asia to make a dent in China’s energy deficit.  Clearly, China can draw energy from a number of external sources.  Theoretically, this lowers China’s incentive to provoke conflict in the South China Sea over a few hundred thousand cubic meters’ worth of methane hydrates.  So, why else has China taken an interest in this contested sea?  The answer lies in security: China recognizes that American control of the South China Sea’s islands could spell disaster in the event of a war.  American analysts have calculated the costs and benefits of a blockade capable of cutting China off from crucial oil supplies while shirking attack from China’s A2AD defense systems. 

China’s artificial islands, if Beijing is able to successfully claim and maintain them, could provide launch points for attacks on US ships or any other ships or aircraft that enter the region.  The fact that the South China Sea is surrounded by US allies, most of whom lay claim to some part of the Sea, no doubt makes the CCP uneasy.  As Beijing sees it, the South China Sea could comprise one more jewel in China’s maritime “string of pearls” – an especially important one at that, considering its proximity to China itself.

With all this in mind, what lies ahead for the South China Sea and the countries that seek to claim it?  If the ICC’s 2016 decision is any indicator, the international community will continue to decry China’s actions in the disputed territory.  But the United States’ insistence on the sea’s neutrality will remain on shaky ground as long as the US refuses to ratify UNCLOS, the very convention that underpinned the Philippines’ legal victory over China in 2016.  If the US wishes to keep the South China Sea truly “international,” American policymakers must refrain from resorting to mere saber-rattling and make a genuine commitment to international maritime law.  The United States’ eschewal of a convention that over 160 other states have ratified – not to mention American’s ongoing struggle with COVID-19, which China claims to have beaten back as the US falters – is undermining the United States’ legitimacy in the region.  America can only increase its maritime security and maintain peace by leading by example in all arenas, including the South China Sea.

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