Behind the rhetoric: South China Sea

After the back and forth posturing of the United States and Chinese governments, freedom of navigation patrols conducted by the US Navy have once again gone unchallenged. Will China ever challenge them? Why does the US feel the need to patrol the area in the first place?


US Navy in the South China Sea
US Navy in the South China Sea



During and after the US election campaign, President Trump has remained vocal on the effects of existing trade agreements between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. There is no denying the existence of an imbalance in the flow of trade between the two nations. Theories on the potential of a trade war and its implications are many and varied according to Western specialists and media. China Daily even went as far as reporting that China is invulnerable to a trade war. The number of variables in the developing tensions between the two superpowers is only matched by the complex web of events that has led both parties to their current positions.

The beginning of understanding the situation is comprehending what is at stake

China, since 1998, has been increasingly dependent on imported energy, especially oil and natural gas. As of 2013, according to the World Bank Group, the PRC imports 13.5% of its energy requirements. The South China Sea, with its vast oil and gas reserves, offers not only energy independence. It offers energy surplus. There is a definite potential for China to rapidly go from buyers to world class supplier of oil and gas. Given the current instability of the Chinese economy, securing a place in what is possibly the world’s most consistently profitable marketplace offers quite a guarantee of economic prosperity for many years to come.

Unfortunately for surrounding nations, the PRC is ignoring the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The PCA’s unanimous award to the Republic of the Philippines clearly outlines the illegitimacy of China’s claims to sovereignty in regards to the 9 dash line, condemning the  construction of military bases in the South China Sea as well as making mention of the environmental impact of turning atolls into artificial islands.

The South China Sea also abounds with plentiful fishing grounds which also would go a long way to assisting the PRC in feeding its population, something that China has struggled to do without resorting to mass importation. That said, many areas around the South China Sea has seen a sharp decline in the abundance of several species. The Chinese fisherman now have to venture deep in the South China Sea — and near disputed waters — to catch a good amount of fish.

The South China Sea Depleted Fisheries. Source: STRATFOR
The South China Sea Depleted Fisheries. Source: STRATFOR

Like so many similar instances in time, the apparent motivations seem to surround the concept of ‘daylight robbery writ large’. A concept that is by no means rare in history. Many nations have resorted to taking by force what they cannot afford to buy.

Is this the case in the current situation in the South China Sea? A difficult question to answer conclusively. On the surface, China does appear to be bullying smaller nations in the region out of contention in regards to the various overlapping claims of sovereignty.

According to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the case is closed. Now the outcome lies with the international community and whether or not there is a willingness to enforce international law on a well-armed nation with much to gain.

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