For decades, the U.S. has guaranteed freedom of navigation in Asia’s waters, patrolling the seas with a view to maintaining the principle that no sovereign state shall suffer interference from another. China’s growing military prowess, combined with a dogged assertiveness over its territorial claims, is testing the old ways and providing a potential flashpoint for the two powers, increasingly at odds over issues from cybersecurity to Covid-19. That tension is felt most keenly in the South China Sea.
1. Where is the South China Sea?
Stretching from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, the waterway encompasses 1.4 million square miles (3.6 million square kilometers), making it bigger than the Mediterranean Sea. To the west it touches Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, and the Philippines and Brunei to the east. It’s a thriving fishing zone — yielding some 10% of the global catch — and holds promising oil and natural gas reserves. A vast amount of trade transits through its waters. In 2016, that amounted to some $3 trillion, including more than 30% of the global maritime crude oil trade.
2. Why is it such a point of contention?
There are conflicting claims to the rocks, reefs and islands therein. China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea and backs up its claim with a 1947 map that shows vague dashes — the so-called nine-dash line — looping down to a point about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) south of its Hainan island. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan claim parts of the same maritime area, and have sparred with China over which claims are valid under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, known as Unclos. The countries involved have been working on a code of conduct meant to resolve confrontations in the South China Sea, though talks have dragged on for more than a decade.
3. Where has China built?
China has reclaimed some 3,200 acres (1,290 hectares) of land on seven reefs or rocks in the Spratly archipelago. On them it has constructed ports, lighthouses and runways, and installed missile batteries and other military equipment. Chinese President Xi Jinping told then-U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 that China had no intention to militarize the structures. Whenever the installation of a new piece of equipment is revealed, China’s Foreign Ministry says it’s for defense purposes.
4. What does the U.S. say?
The U.S. takes no position on the competing claims. But the U.S. Navy regularly carries out “freedom-of-navigation operations,” known as Fonops, by sending warships and aircraft near disputed waters to demonstrate the right to travel through what it considers international waters and airspace. The U.S. carried out eight publicized Fonops in 2019 and four already in the first four months of 2020. That compares with a total of four in eight years under Obama, according to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
5. How has the international community responded?
An international arbitration panel in The Hague refuted China’s claims in 2016. It ruled there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within seas falling within the nine-dash line. It also found that, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, man-made islands — such as those built by China — don’t generate maritime entitlements or zones of sovereignty. The case was brought by the Philippines. China refused to take part in the arbitration, saying the panel had no jurisdiction. But it is Vietnam’s voice that has grown the loudest in recent years amid repeated alleged provocations, including the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near the contested Paracel Islands in April.
6. Why are people worried?
The number of run-ins is rising. A Pentagon official accused China in May of harrassing the destroyer U.S.S. Mustin while it patrolled the South China Sea, and cited at least nine instances of Chinese fighter jets doing the same to U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. China’s Defense Ministry said its navy expelled a U.S. guided missile destroyer from the sea on April 28, saying it had violated Chinese territory. With President Donald Trump months from an election, and President Xi Jinping rattling nationalistic cages at home to distract from a wounded economy, the mood is less conducive to the careful diplomacy needed to defuse a standoff at sea.
7. What do the U.S. and China say about these incidents?
A White House report in May accused China of “engaging in provocative and coercive” military activities in areas including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said the Navy would “continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand.” Before announcing his resignation in December, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that Beijing would face “ larger consequences” in the long term for militarizing the waters that could persuade it to change track. China has responded to Fonops by saying the U.S. is violating its sovereignty, and in May indirectly accused the U.S. of muscle-flexing in an effort to sow discord between China and Southeast Asian nations.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Opinion’s James Stavridis sees a Cold War heating up the South China Sea.
- Analyst Euan Graham considers the Hague tribunal’s ruling.
- The U.S. and Chinese destroyers’ close call.
- How Airbus and Boeing signal a long trade war ahead.
- A QuickTake on China’s territorial claims.
David Tweed contributed to an earlier version of this article.
— With assistance by Karen Leigh