The South China Sea is Heating Up.

Coupled with a report on The Swedish Wire that China is now relying less upon Russia for its weapons comes revelations that tensions are high in the South China Sea, a disputed maritime area believed to be rich with oil and natural resources. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute issued a study saying that China is increasingly independent in its weapons development and manufacturing and thus relies less upon Russia as a result, weakening Russia’s bargaining position with the nation. Russian fears that China will steal and copy its more advanced designs have caused it to withhold its more advanced technologies from its southern neighbor, which may also have directly influenced China’s desire to grow its nascent arms industry and establish a more independent direction. This also comes in the wake of the revelation that China now depends less and less on Russia for oil and other energy resources. While often viewed as allies, China and Russia’s relationship is complicated by their mutual distrust of each other and competitive national trajectories, thus competition rather than cooperation is expected to mark their relationship in the future. The struggle for control of the South China Sea between China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India should thus come as no surprise as China seeks to flex its growing world influence.

The South China Sea is a geopolitically strategic area of importance because of its many shipping lanes and vast resources in terms of marine life and potential energy. The South China Sea links Northeast Asia to the Indian Ocean and is the busiest shipping area in the world with, “Half of the world’s oil supplies and two-thirds (66 percent) of exported natural gas [being] transported through the South China Sea.” While only 28 billion barrels of oil are believed to lie beneath the South China Sea according to U.S. estimates (China claims 210 billion barrels), China’s growing and nearly insatiable need for energy has made asserting dominance over the region appealing. These resources have led to sovereignty disputes in the area which in turn has led to disputes over resource extraction rights. International legal claims to sovereignty stem from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 which permits states to extend their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles from their coastal baseline. Anything within this zone is considered the national territory of the claimant state and is thus appropriate for economic development and resource extraction. The Pratas, Macclesfield Bank, Paracel, and Spratly Islands are four main chains currently in dispute with 90 to 650 islands estimated to be within the South China Sea area in total. In order to be considered a part of a sovereign territory under international law an island or piece of land must be effectively inhabited and controlled by said state before a claim can be made which explains the drive on the part of these competing states to occupy these lands in the area. China and Vietnam are drawn into competition for oil resources in the region as Vietnam, ASEAN’s third largest producer of oil, finds its “White Tiger” oil fields depleted. China’s increasing budget for its military, partnered with a roaring economy, has placed the strategic fate of the South China Sea in the air as China is now able to assert its claims in a more forceful manner than in the past when it was constrained by its limited military capability as well as the Cold War.

An article for The Diplomat by Tetsuo Katani, “Why China Wants the South China Sea,” posits a different reason for China’s desire to control the area, namely, Katani argues in a realist fashion that the South China Sea is a strategic nuclear area for China akin to the Caribbean for the United States. China’s drive for a credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent has led to its assertion of control in the South China Sea area. China’s expansion of its nuclear capable submarine fleet requires it to have a safe haven for its SSBNs (submersible ship ballistic missile nuclear powered) like the Sea of Okhotsk for Russia or the Caribbean for the U.S. This is because land based ICBM sites can be destroyed in a nuclear attack, leaving only the submarine-based weapons for retaliation. China’s goals in the area are the control of approaches to Taiwan, area denial, protection of sea lines and interdiction of enemy lines. Chinese anti-access/area-denial strategies will oppose enemy forward anti-submarine warfare operations and China’s nascent aircraft carrier fleet will be used to solidify claims in the area. This strategy draws China directly into conflicts of interest with the United States, India, Australia, and Japan because the South China Sea is an internationally recognized waterway, unlike Russia’s strategic zone in the Sea of Okhotsk. The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea calls for peaceful negotiations between the parties to resolve the dispute, yet this has not prevented Japan and the United States from conducting intense anti-submarine warfare activities around the Philippines. China, for its part, is not interested in bilateral agreements with the United States because such instruments would justify the United States’ presence there. Additionally, India is getting increasingly involved in the area with the development of its first ballistic submarine the Arihant. Australia sees peace in the South China Sea as a necessity for its continued prosperity and Japan receives 90% of its imported oil through this sea lane.

Tensions are mounting in the region as an official Chinese state paper has called for war with Vietnam and the Philippines to assert its regional dominance with the Global Times headline reading, “The time to use force has arrived in the South China Sea; Let’s wage wars on the Philippines and Vietnam to prevent more wars.”  The Global Times is the Chinese Communist Party’s official paper for discussion of international affairs and is published under the authority of the party. The apparent cause of this hawkish stance is the Philippines call for an ASEAN meeting to discuss the South China Sea while excluding China as well as India and Vietnam’s development of the region for oil reserves. Again, China’s arms buildup is seen as preempting a conflict over the region and adding to the general insecurity that permeates it. While development of its arms capabilities is not in and of itself indication of a war-footing on the part of the Chinese, it does insure that the South China Sea area will be a place of contention for years to come. Likely, given the importance of economic growth for the Chinese Communist Party’s goals and its desire to maintain this growth for domestic stability, war will not come to the South China Sea as long as parties in contention attempt to negotiate multilateral agreements that see its resources divvied up in a realistic and juridical fashion.

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