In a tense episode within one of the South China Sea’s most volatile flashpoints, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane maintained a vigilant orbit, while numerous Chinese coast guard ships and their counterparts pursued and surrounded Philippine vessels.
On Friday there was a four-hour standoff on the open waters, a Chinese coast guard vessel directed a water cannon at a Philippine motorboat tasked with delivering essential supplies, including food, to Filipino forces stationed on a stranded and deteriorating warship. This vessel stands as the nation’s precarious territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
China has consistently maintained its assertion of nearly complete control over the strategically significant South China Sea, leading to conflicts with its smaller neighboring nations and involving the United States, Manila’s treaty partner and China’s primary competitor in the Asia-Pacific region. In response, Washington and its allied nations have dispatched naval vessels and fighter planes to uphold the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, strengthen deterrence, and provide reassurance to allies, such as the Philippines.
What makes the South China Sea crucial for China?
The South China Sea holds paramount global significance due to its pivotal role in connectivity. A substantial portion of oil imports, with 80% for Japan and 39% for China, originates from the Middle East and traverses the Malacca Strait—a narrow passage between Indonesia and Malaysia—from the Indian Ocean to reach East Asia through the South China Sea.
Approximately 60% of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80% of China’s crude oil imports are dependent on the South China Sea. Beyond its strategic location, the South China Sea is known to harbor substantial energy resources, with estimated reserves of seven billion barrels of oil and around 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Chinese authorities suggest that these figures may even surpass current estimates.
The South China Sea presents China with a valuable opportunity to eliminate reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Malacca Strait for its energy requirements from the Middle East. China has already invested billions of U.S. dollars, expressing confidence in the substantial oil reserves believed to exist in the South China Sea. This strategic shift would enhance China’s energy security and reduce the risks associated with the current route through the Malacca Strait.
The South China Sea accommodates over two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, of which only around three dozen remain consistently above water. Despite their limited surface presence, these formations hold significant value due to the potential presence of oil and natural gas within the folded rock layers beneath the sea. Notable among these features are the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, encompassing islands, reefs, and rocks that play a pivotal role in the geopolitical dynamics of the region.
Several countries assert territorial claims in the Spratly Islands. Brunei and Malaysia stake claims to portions of the Spratly Islands, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each assert considerable sovereignty over the South China Sea, encompassing both the Spratly and Paracel island groups.
Beijing maintains a broad claim over the entire South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands, citing historical evidence. These territorial disputes, particularly between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, are exacerbated by military alliances with the U.S., further complicating the regional dynamics in the South China Sea.
The ‘Nine-dash Line’
China’s ‘nine-dash line’ is a demarcation on maps that China has used to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The line is a series of dashes that form a U-shaped boundary enclosing about 90% of the South China Sea.
Image Credits – RFA
Since the 1940s, the line has been featured on official Chinese maps. It delineates an extensive yet indistinct expanse of ocean, extending from China’s southern coast through the majority of the South China Sea. The exact coordinates of this line have never been clarified by China, but it traverses waters and numerous small islands that are also claimed by five other nations.
However, an international tribunal in The Hague issued a resounding ruling against China in a territorial dispute with the Philippines. The tribunal explicitly rejected China’s “nine-dash line,” which Beijing had used to assert its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. This ruling marked a notable legal judgment regarding the contested maritime boundaries in the region.
This demarcation appears to extend well beyond the limits stipulated by the United Nations treaty on maritime territorial issues, a pact that China is a signatory to. In these regions, China has undertaken the construction of islands, established runways, and conducted patrols. To China, this line signifies the resurgence of historical claims that the nation, after two centuries of vulnerability, is now robust enough to reclaim. Conversely, for other nations, the line is emblematic of what they view as an overt power move by China.
China tends to adopt assertive behavior. The smaller nations such as the Philippines, though limited in size, remain steadfast in safeguarding their territorial integrity. This results in an asymmetric and somewhat chaotic relationship, where China may not fully acknowledge the autonomy of its smaller counterparts.
Simultaneously, the other nations are seen as asserting themselves against the leadership of the larger state. The considerable power disparity bolsters China’s confidence in pursuing hegemonic objectives in the South China Sea, while the other claimants, in attempts to address this imbalance, resort to strategies such as forming alliances with external powers such as India, Japan, and the U.S. or augmenting their military budgets.