Why Does The Control Of The South China Sea Matter and What Are The Outcomes Of The Dispute? By Sam Chiang



The South China Sea is currently one of the most pressing topics politically as nations argue for land, power, and resources. The South China sea is a shipping route and sea used by traders and fishermen from around the area. The area is currently in a dispute over who has control of the sea. The South China Sea is rich in oil and gas reserves. It contains massive, tested oil reserves. The problem is that China is claiming that they own land and are militarizing the area. Other countries are being bullied by China’s military into agreeing with them even though they are making their own claims. However, the US does not believe that China should have that much territory and continues to encroach on their positions, as does China. Both sides have hinted that if the other side continues to encroach, armed conflict would follow. The control of the south China sea dispute has a connection to legalism where China is telling its opponents in the dispute what will happen if they do not obey. In fact, every country in the dispute has submitted to China, while the US is the only opposed and does not have a claim to the sea. Also, the connection to current chinese legacy is that since China is a world superpower economically and in terms of their military, they are bullying other countries into agreeing with their ideas. Control of the South China Sea matters to China because the sea is rich in resources and is vital to military positioning.


The control of the South China Sea matters countries around the world because it contains vast deposits of resources and its location is vital in military positioning. All of the nations making claims to the sea have been occupying and developing small islands including those of the Spratly archipelago. (Hunt, Katie) However, they are scared of the Chinese military and have started to agree to Chinese propositions. “we do not want to take such aggressive, provocative action that will not solve the problem," Perfecto Yasay, the secretary of Foreign Affairs, told CNN Philippines. "We cannot engage China in a war. In this quote from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the Philippines, they say that they cannot engage China in war, and thus cannot enforce the rulings of the tribunal for the sovereignty of their waters. (“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...)The reasoning for their claims is that they do not want to get caught up in a war between China and the US, so they are holding a position of neutrality. Also making territorial claims to the South China Sea, Malaysia is scared of the Chinese military and does not want to engage in armed conflict. They do not want to get involved in a war between China and the US. (“Donald Trump administration”…) As a result, China has been making their claim to the South China sea by using the "nine-dash line". This claim extends hundreds of miles to the south and east of its island provinces, and encroaches on the claim of other sovereign nations. In order to attempt to justify their claims, China has been developing islands and claiming control to them and the waters that surround them. (Hunt,Katie) The US is also building up their military presence in the South China Sea region by building military bases and airstrips including some that will face the South China Sea.(Hunt, Katie) They also conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations on a regular basis.


If the negotiation of the dispute continues as each side continues to encroach, armed conflict will occur. Recently, there has been a solution to the topic. As they realized that they are far less superior in terms of their military force, the Philippines sought an international arbitration under the UN Convention on the laws of sea. The tribunal ruled in favor of Philippines and said that China has violated their sovereign rights. Thus, China did not attend the tribunal and claims that they will not listen to the verdict. (“Why is the”...) However, China has refused to recognize the decision and has stopped attending events aimed at solving the dispute. As a result, a large problem is created. No other UN nations near the South China Sea have large enough military power to tell China to stop. (“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) They would be easily outmatched and destroyed by Chinese Navy and Aircraft. The United States is conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations in order to collect intelligence and to pester the Chinese, since the Chinese cannot do anything or it will be an act of war. However, the United States cannot take any actions in order to justify the verdict and enforce it because the United States has not ratified the treaty of the Law of the Sea making the treaty not apply to them or their military.(“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) With all legal attempts to peaceful solve the dispute dismissed, the only reasons that remain either provoke or start armed conflict. The US solution to the dispute is rapidly changing with the new Trump Administration. Under the new Trump administration, a bigger and more firm stance has been taken on the topic of control of the South China Sea.(“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) Trump's new secretary of state believes that the island building must stop and China's access restricted. (Hunt, Katie) However, Beijing responded to this comment by saying that if the US wanted to restrict China's access, they would go to war. (“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) In order to stop China’s access to the islands, a naval blockade would be needed. However, according to Dr. Rapp-Hooper: "A blockade - which is what would be required to actually bar access - is an act of war. The Trump administration has begun to draw red lines in Asia that they will almost certainly not be able to uphold, but they may nonetheless be very destabilizing to the relationship with China, invite crises, and convince the rest of the world that the United States is an unreliable partner."(“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) Simply, this means that if the United States creates a blockade and stops China’s access to the islands in the South China Sea, it would be considered an act of war and armed conflict would break out. On the more peaceful side, China believes that the United States should not take part in the conflict. "The United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. (“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) This quote means that China believes that the United States should not be involved with the dispute as the other parties are starting to side with China and the US is not making any claims to the sea or to land in the sea. China believes that the US is just being a pest and making sure that China is unable to set up military installations. (“Beijing Reasserts Sovereignty”...) However, on the more secretive side China has been turning sandbars into islands since 2014. (Hunt, Katie) These man-made islands are equipped with runways, ports, and weapons systems.(Hunt, Katie) Taking control and manipulating these sandbars into islands helps justify the claim by the Chinese. This is true because if China owns the land, then they should also have control of the waters that surround it. (Hunt, Katie) As a result, as the islands keep growing larger and stronger, China warns the US to stay away from the developing islands or armed conflict will follow.(Hunt, Katie)


The dispute of the South China Sea is one that has been influenced by many different legacies. It is currently being influenced by the legacy of modern day China. Modern day China is one of the world's major superpowers with a powerful military and a booming economy. As a result, other countries are scared of China’s power and will normally concede and agree with China. This means that modern day China is able to bully smaller and weaker nations into agreeing with them through the tactic of fear. This legacy has been surfacing a lot with the recent events in the South China Sea as even countries who are attempting to claim land in the South China Sea have started to make deals with China and take their side even though they stand lots to lose if China is correct. Another legacy that has been influencing the dispute of the South China Sea is that of Legalism. Legalism is evident in the conflict as China is warning its opponents about the outcomes if China does not get what it wants. In fact with a combination of influence from Legalism and modern day China, countries are starting to obey China and give in. As a result the only countries that will even talk to the United States about the issue are those are closely allied, and even still that country is making deals with China.

After completing my research of the dispute in the South China Sea, I am left with many new questions. The one that intrigues me the most is: Will armed conflict break out between the new Trump Administration and Beijing as stated? Or will both or one side back down? Also, could there be a peaceful resolution to the matter as currently, all solutions point towards armed conflict? Finally, If China expands its territory to the South China Sea, will they start to want more and more? Eventually, will they start claiming more land and seas in their near vicinity?

Image Sources:

  • http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
  • https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/world/asia/what-china-has-been-building-in-the-south-china-sea-2016.html?_r=0
  • http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/02/asia/us-china-south-china-sea/
  • http://www.businessinsider.com/us-yes-china-we-did-send-a-a-small-armada-to-the-south-china-sea-2016-3

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