With much of the world’s attention fixed on the Middle East, China has aggressively positioned itself as the dominant force in the resource-rich South China Sea. Laying claim to the Spratly Islands, China seeks to tap into the vast oil-beds located in the area beneath the sea’s floor. Recent estimates indicate the oil bed, with at least 7 billion barrels of oil is at least 80 percent the size of Saudi Arabia’s reserves. With obvious strategic implications for controlling the area, six regional countries—China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia—all lay claim to the South China Sea. The problem is that no country’s claim to ownership is recognized by any major international body, and there is no precedent or legal decision recognized by all interested parties that would validate the competing claims. Even so, China generally holds the strongest claim simply due to the ambiguous legal situation coupled with the relatively powerful regional strength of the Chinese navy.
Tensions over the Spratly Islands and large swaths of the South China Sea have escalated in recent decades. In 1988, a brief naval skirmish between China and the Vietnamese led to the deaths of over 70 Vietnamese sailors. China has recently increased the number of ships in the People’s Liberation Army Navy South Sea Fleet and at the same time constructed a new naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island. These military developments have directly contributed to Vietnam’s purchase of six kilo-class Russian conventional submarines to counter China’s growing naval presence in the region. Escalating military presence in the region has sparked very mild and cautious, but still present, fears of an arms race. Philippine President Benigno Aquino let slip to the Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie that the Philippines would have to increase its naval capability to counter the Chinese.
Though most experts do not forecast an impending arms race or any likely military conflict, the dispute has riled up nationalist fervor among the Chinese and Vietnamese. This is especially true given that an alternative to the very messy legal and diplomatic debate is aggressive power projection. On October 3, the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, ran an editorial calling for war with Vietnam and the Philippines in order to cement China’s claim to the South China Sea. While that irregular outburst was most likely just that—excessively tough rhetoric that China will not dare follow with action— interested countries, including India, which is helping Vietnam research and develop drilling operations within its claimed territory, have reacted by holding economic conferences with other ASEAN countries while excluding China. However, by doing this, rival countries are further cutting off dialogue with China that could stave off possible military conflict.
While acting multilaterally lends weight to rhetoric, claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines, even while working together to counter China, still lack the power to contest the Chinese navy. Given China’s economic strength and recent military buildup, there seems to be little reason for China to abandon its position of power in the region. But since the other nations remain recalcitrant in their claims as well, there needs to be a third party that can arbitrate the dispute or deter China. Though China has already publically stated that it will not recognize any decision that is influenced by powers outside of the region, such as the US, the situation in general still warrants the United States to maintain, at the very least, a strong military presence through continued operations of its 7th fleet in the South Pacific.
Not only do the Spratly Islands and the surrounding region have copious amounts of oil and natural gas, but they also sit in the middle of important trade routes. A China in control of the Spratlys would see an increase in its regional power and would challenge US diplomatic efforts in the region. If the United States were to pull back from the region, it would critically damage US relations with other ASEAN countries at a time when the US needs to have more allies and less hotspot situations that could jeopardize its future in Asia.
Lucas Chan is an editorial assistant of the Georgetown Journal Online and a freshman in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.