Beijing and the South China Sea

Photo: claffra

As President Xi Jinping tours the western world advocating Chinese businesses, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues incrementally asserting dominance over territory in the South China Sea. Territorial claims in the South China Sea have been contentious for centuries, but recent land reclamation attempts by China have made it a global security issue. The U.S. Navy is now reportedly preparing to patrol within the 12 mile zone that surrounds the Chinese man-made islands, an act that Beijing sees as one intended to provoke a response from the PLA.

Six countries- China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan—all lay claim to islands in the South China Sea.  These countries base their claims on history as well as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  UNCLOS gives nations “Exclusive Economic Zone” (EEZ) authority extending out to 200 nautical miles off their coastline.  The country has sole exploitation rights over natural resources in that EEZ. China, however, also lays claim to an area within a “nine-dash line,” which incorporates about 80 percent of the South China Sea and extends far beyond what would be considered a Chinese EEZ.

Graphic: The Cipher Brief

The United States serves as the regional security guarantor for many of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. With this role, the U.S. maintains a presence in the South China Sea to maintain the balance of power as well as to ensure the protection of freedom of navigation and trade. The U.S. flies weekly on the edge of the Chinese territory. The American policy towards the South China Sea ensures that the U.S. will, “sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows.”

During his state visit to Washington, DC, Chinese President Xi Jinping reinforced China’s position, saying, “Islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are China’s territory.  We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests.”

 These opposing views by China and the U.S. generate fear that there could be a misinterpretation of intentions by either side leading to an escalation of the tensions and possible conflict.

The dispute is about regional influence and access to natural resources.  For China, this is about more than territory – it’s also about the country’s role as the leader in East Asia.  China’s actions in the South China Sea will allow it to project military power throughout the region as well as exert control over one of the world’s largest shipping lanes.  The Chinese Communist Party also has to maintain credibility at home and traditionally does not back down on sovereignty issues.

The South China Sea contains significant proven and potential oil reserves, particularly in the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. China claiming control of these territories jeopardizes the financial interests of the other disputing countries. 

China is not the only country building islands, but the size, scale, and scope of their efforts far outmatch those of other countries.  Much of the concern is a result of China’s recent “island building” – creating land on top of submerged atolls using sand and concrete.  China has also built military facilities on some islands in the Sea.  But Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have also been island building for decades, and the Philippines and Taiwan station military forces on some of their islands.

What makes China’s actions different is the size and speed with which they have undertaken these tasks.  China has built runways and military bases on both man-made and natural islands, which no other country has done.   The Chinese have reclaimed 2,000 acres in the last 18 months, according to the U.S. Department of Defense—more than all other claimants combined.

China is also the only country that has the capability to enforce its claims, making its actions significantly more consequential.  China’s defense spending is six times that of the ASEAN member states’.  When other countries build islands or station military forces, it inspires irritation; when China does it, it inspires fear.

Still, regional economic interdependence makes conflict unlikely.  However, should it occur, the impact of trade disruptions would be felt far beyond the region.  The East Asian economy is heavily integrated, both regionally and globally.  While the dispute has caused tension, economic and trade relationships have not suffered significantly. However, with such an intricate web of trading networks, conflict risks severe economic impacts.   

The South China Sea is also a major shipping lane. Over half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the Indo-Pacific waterways – including one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas.  Should conflict occur, it would disrupt supply chains worldwide.


Alexandra Viers is an International Producer with The Cipher Brief.


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