Importance of the South China Sea for the US and China and their Growing Tensions

Irfan Ali –

The South China Sea (SCS) has great strategic and economic significance in the contemporary international politico-security environment. At the economic front, it is estimated that an annual global trade of $5.3 trillion passes through the SCS. Besides, more than half of the world’s fishing vessels pass through the SCS. This implies that millions of people are dependent on the SCS when it comes to their food and livelihoods. Along with this, the SCS is also rich in natural resources; for instance, a large amount of oil and natural gas reserves have been discovered so far. It is further believed that yet it contains a huge reserve beneath its seabed. The strategic and economic importance of SCS is one of the major reasons for growing Sino-US tensions over time. China holds a legitimate claim over various parts of the SCS. The US on the other hand, aspired by its global hegemony considers China as a considerable threat to its dominance and influence in this part of the world. These factors combined have contributed towards the US trying to re-aligning and re-adjusting at the regional level to contain China throughout the South China Sea.

The SCS holds great significance for China because of multiple factors. The first and foremost factor in this regard is the Spratly Islands, which has great strategic importance for China. As per the Chinese principled stance which is based on strong historical and undeniable facts, these islands have been part of its territory. China further maintains that it has full and legitimate control of these islands. Similarly, China has been willing to solve the bilateral claim issues with other claimant regional states. By doing so, China would be in a position to claim jurisdiction on adjacent waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the provocative military presence of the US in the SCS would further compel China to follow the same suit. Moreover, since most of China’s trade passes through the SCS, it would be more desirable for China to have this region to be conflict-free for a safe passage. As far as the interests of the US in the SCS are concerned, they can be divided into three broad categories. First, the economic interests of the US have been tied to sea-lanes of the SCS. Second, at the military level, the US has been strengthening its ties with its regional security partners to counter China. Third, the US, being a globally dominant power, wants to maintain its influence and turn the balance of power into its favor in the pretext of respect for international law and the role of security guarantor to the regional states. These factors indicate the complicated nature of the clash of interests of both the US and China in the SCS region.

The recent round of tensions between the US and China in the SCS have brought both the countries once again at loggers head. On August 18, 2020, the US navy conducted drills in the SCS within 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of China. It was perceived as a highly offensive move by the US since it was the first time when the US Navy’s USS Musting Destroyer has gone through the median line that divides the mainland China and Taiwan. In the same vein, a US military/spy plane “E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System Aircraft” was spotted flying over the SCS on August 5, 2020. Similarly back in July 2020, two aircraft carriers and four other warships of the US Navy have conducted drills in the SCS. On April 22, 2020, the US deployed one of its latest naval assault ships, the “USS America” in the SCS.

Meanwhile, the US despite knowing the Chinese ‘One-China’ principled stance on Taiwan, has deliberately enhanced its defence ties with Taiwan especially in recent years along with its support for the Independence of Taiwan. China considers that such provocations would threaten the peace and stability in the region. Furthermore, the US has much deeper involvement in the SCS because of the factor called ‘China Fear’ which refers to the fear of the US that has emerged from the economic and military rise of China. Furthermore, the evolved situation in the SCS also seems like one of the reasons behind the Chinese move to develop a more safe and secure trade route in the form of CPEC under its BRI initiative. This evolved Chinese model of economic integration has further feared the US that in the coming years it might not be in a position to contain China at the economic front.     

Hence summarizing it all, it is quite evident that China is being threatened by the US in the South China Sea. The US has been maintaining a provocative military presence in the region to project its military supremacy and influence. China on the other hand still holds a very principled stance of justified ownership of 80% of the SCS region.  It further considers the SCS as its integral and indisputable part of mainland China. Therefore, China has repeatedly been condemning the US offensive military posturing in the region. Since both countries are key international players, for the broader international security architecture to remain stable it has become the responsibility of both the countries to avoid any conflict in the SCS. Only this could normalize the situation in the SCS region and ultimately bring stability, peace in the region.

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