Last month, an unmanned American research submarine was taken by Chinese authorities while exploring the bottom of the South China Sea. The submersible, which was supposedly mapping the bottom of the sea for scientific research, was quickly returned to the United States, but not before sparking a much larger international incident. As with almost any international conflict, this goes much deeper than a tiny boat under the sea. Most experts believe this was a deliberate provocation by China because of territorial disputes over the South China Sea. This week, we'll dive into (get it?) the real reasons behind China's obsession with the South China Sea.
The dispute over the South China Sea primarily comes down to trade. Nearly one third of the world's trade passes through these waters, meaning that whomever controls the sea would have significant leverage over the global economy. This isn't to say that China would close off all unfriendly trade or impose a tax on all naval trade through the sea, but it would at least have the ability to threaten such actions. (Much like Iran can threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.) In addition to causing massive trade disruption and market instability, such actions could also threaten the balance of power in the region. Imposing trade restrictions directly flies in the face of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which promotes the concept of freedom of trade and navigation on open waters (and was designed to prevent one powerful nation from exerting control over the world's maritime trade).
So how is China staking its claim? They are using a combination of existing claims to various islands and a massive construction project to create their own islands. By building and then claiming these islands as their own, China is attempting exploit the UNCLOS by using its definition of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). An EEZ is basically an internationally recognized zone in the waters around a country's territory that gives that country special economic privileges. It also grants that state access to the nearby seabed and undersea resources of that territory (which the South China Sea is rumored to have a lot of).
Naturally, the United States doesn't like the idea of one of its main geopolitical rivals gaining so much power. So the United States (along with its allies and other countries with competing claims to the sea) has been leading the effort to dispute China's claims within the United Nations. But the task of keeping China's maritime power in check has become difficult lately. Recently, another nation with major claims in the region (the Philippines) has moved decisively away from its long-standing alliance with the United States and towards better relations with China. It stands to reason then, that China could likely gain some major concessions towards its goal of maritime domination should this warming of Chinese-Philippine relations continues. This, and some statements by the incoming president about Taiwan, are among the main reasons things are starting to heat up on the South China Sea.
Finally, in addition to trade, China is also looking to expand and flex its naval power in the region. Though still far behind the naval domination of the United States, China has spent a substantial amount of money and effort in creating a navy capable of projecting power throughout the Pacific. As discussed in a previous post, naval power provides many substantial benefits including the ability to enforce international rules (when it suits that nation), provide humanitarian assistance, and rapidly deploy military forces. Whether China succeeds in its endeavors or not, China will almost certainly continue to grow its naval power in the coming decades. The South China Sea is just one part of this plan.
Overall, it is clear that China is a nation that is determined to grow and expand its influence in the coming decades, often at the expense of America and its allies. Outright conflict is certainly not desirable from an American perspective, but neither is complete abandonment of U.S. interests in the western Pacific. Though the Obama administration attempted a "pivot" to Asia as part of its grand foreign policy strategy, this has largely been sidelined by continued crises in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Still, if incoming president Trump's comments on China are any indication, the United States appears to be on a path of much greater confrontation with China. This was backed up by comments from potential Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's Senate confirmation hearing. Hopefully, the next four years will encourage China to work within the existing international system to discuss its claims rather than force China to begin taking more drastic steps to assert its ascending naval power.