South China Sea as a Potential Flashpoint

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Strategic features in maritime domain can be classified by position, strength and resources

Alfred T. Mahan

South China Sea has all the characteristics to be called a strategic waterway. It extends from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Taiwan. Located in the Pacific Ocean adjacent to East Asia, it is basically marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean which connects the Pacific with Indian Ocean. South China Sea (SCS) has potential to emerge as power center because over 500 million people in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam live within the SCS coastline. In 2017, the amount of $ 3.37 trillion of international trade passed through this sea. 80 % of oil which is imported by China goes through Strait of Malacca and SCS. When it comes to strength, it is one of world’s busiest international sea lane with many of the shipping ports. It was observed that over half of the world’s oil tankers traffic and marchant fleets sail through its waterways every year.

Whenever, it is talked about the natural resources, SCS comes in the priority list because of its biological diversity, which includes 30% of the world’s coral reefs and many precious fisheries. It is also believed that it contains abundant oil and natural resources having significance for the energy importing states around the region.

According to the estimates of American Security Project Report, “ The SCS holds one third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity and provides about ten percent of the world’s catch. Though total estimates vary, the region is thought to contain 7. 7 billion proven barrels of oil, with more optimistic estimates reaching as high 213 billion barrels of oil.” As far as, resources are concerned the SCS is amongst the richest seas of the world. The estimated resources of natural resources can be higher in the quantity. Natural gas reserves are near about 266 trillion cubic feet, which makes 60-70 percent of region’s hydrocarbon resources.

Due to these characteristics, South China Sea has become particular region of interest for the major naval powers and littoral states. Renowned Journalist and Author Robert Kaplan termedthe South China Sea as “ the 21st Century defining battleground and throat of global sea routes.” The world and particularly the South Eastern Asian states are witnessing not only the emergence of China but the developments of the entire region in which China holds the driving seat.

China’s nine-dash line  is at the heart of South China Sea disputes and it is claimed that it encircles 90% of the contested waters. This line runs almost 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred km of Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Beijing claims it as a “historical maritime right”  to legitimize its actions. Historically, it appeared in Chinese map as 11-dash line in 1947 but later it was renamed as the nine-dash line. In real meanings, no one ever controlled effectively the entire region in past. Other claimants such as Philippines, Malaysia and Burnie root their claims in geographical proximity. On the other hand, Vietnam stresses that it actively administers the area.

Let’s come to the disputes of region which may play a catalyst role to start a full fledge war among the great powers. China is a party to multiple maritime territorial disputes and is conscious about the SCS and to achieve its national goals is asserting territorial claims in the SCS. This may help her strengthen its position in the region. For this purpose, China has changed it military policy and shifting its focus to naval strategy by deemphasizing the land operations and is bent on building artificial islands in the south China sea.

China has taken also unilateral decisions to exert pressure in the littoral states. The strategic waterway is at the center of long simmering territorial disputes involving the US. The US has upped the stakes by accusing China of bullying, and both sides have stepped up military drills in the contested waters. ASEAN members are also using strong language and contesting China’s claims. More recently, China has challenged Indonesia’s right to maintain an exclusive economic zone in the national islands on the edge of SCS. In response, Indonesia protested over the presence of Chinese coastguard vessel and deployment of fighter its jets to patrol the island.

To counter Chinese moves in the region, the US is also enhancing its military presence and is supporting regional countries diplomatically and financially to help contain China’s rise and avoid domination of a single power. US navy has increased its presence in the region since it is a crucial passage for the US warships cruising from the Pacific to the Middle East. China has been quietly mounting a range of civilians and scientific operations to consolidate its claims in the SCS and continuously challenging the international norms of freedom of navigations by stopping the parties to perform fisheries activities. In April 2019, a Chinese coastguard vessel collided and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat.

All these developments clearly indicate how SCS has become a source of potential conflict in the region and present a threat to the peace and security of Asia. China will not compromise on the SCS and most of the states are party to the Treaty of Manila which aims to protect the US allies from external threat. The US policy of containment has proven to be a failure because China is constantly challenging the existing international order. On the other hand, the US will use all possible tools to limit China’s rise and to achieve this objective it may escalate the tension and engage in a war to defend its the allies in the region.

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Tahir Abbas

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