Tensions in the South China Sea have once again escalated in the first few months of the new year.
In 2014, China began reclamation and dredging processes to strengthen its presence in the South China Sea. These efforts have effectively culminated in the creation of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago on which China has placed numerous fortifications, such as radar facilities, runways, and surface-to-air missile batteries.
These fortifications pose little threat to the US, but they do have significant implications for countries in the region who possess relatively inferior military capabilities; such as the Philippines. China’s reclamation efforts also have repercussions on international trade as more than a third of the world’s maritime trade passes through the region.
Earlier this month the US reported evidence of Chinese activities around the Scarborough Shoal, a reef in the South China Sea that was seized by China from the Philippines four years ago, which some analysts contend signifies China’s intent to reclaim additional land in the area.
China’s activities and reclamation efforts in the South China Sea have led to a security dilemma in the region in which countries involved have increasingly turned to the US for support. For example, Vietnam has recently lodged a formal complaint against China and publicly called for an increase of US presence in response to China’s placement of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island, the largest island in the disputed Parcels.
The Philippines have also called for US involvement in the region to combat increasing Chinese militarization. Indeed, the Philippines desire for US presence has resulted in a new agreement that will allow the US military use of five Philippine bases; the first time in 25 years the US will have a military presence in the country.
Additionally, Taiwan has recently invited journalists to Taiping Island, an island contested between Taipei and Beijing, to bring attention to Taiwan’s territorial claims. Even China’s long-time friend, Indonesia, has tussled with Chinese presence in the South China Sea.
US response to developments in the region has been significant
Apart from the usual back and forth rhetoric between Beijing and Washington, the US has explicitly declared the intent to continue freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea to ensure the region remains open. Earlier in March, the US sent aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and four other American warships to the region, and US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has explicitly stated the importance of keeping Chinese militarization in the South China Sea in check. To accomplish this, Carter has stated the US military plans to spend $425 million through 2020 to pay for joint military exercises and training with allied countries involved in the dispute. The Pentagon also plans to spend an additional $8 billion in 2017 to expand maritime military capabilities, e.g. submarines and undersea drones.
Despite the contentious situation in the South China Sea and the respective militaristic activities of both China and the US, Beijing and Washington are well aware of the need to approach the situation cautiously. As head of US naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, has stated, “We have to be sophisticated in how we approach this so that we don’t force any of our partners into an uncomfortable position where they have to make tradeoffs that are not in their best interest”. China’s influence on not only the region, but the entire global sphere renders a prudent approach crucial. Cooler heads must prevail and the US must refrain from approaching the territorial disputes in a heavy handed manner.
Perhaps the two countries will make progress in reducing tensions in the region later this week as President Xi Jinping has agreed to discuss the South China Sea dispute with President Obama at the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit. However, given the highly complicated and impassioned nature of the disputes plaguing the South China Sea, it is unlikely we will witness any meaningful result from the talks and the South China Sea will likely remain a source of contention for the US and China.