South China Sea, a marginal sea in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, is believed to hold massive natural gas and oil reserves beneath its seabed. It is an archipelago where uninhabited islands are subjected to sovereign claims by China, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia. Freedom of navigation is another such contentious issue particularly between China and the United States. These tensions have received a greater impetus due to China’s plans to develop naval capabilities in the region. As a consequence, the denying access to the US Navy in the western Pacific could spark off a conflict. Given the increasing importance of US-China relationship in the Asia-Pacific region, the USA is concerned with preventing any major dispute emanating from South China Sea.
The Likely Future Events
Though there are several contingencies that bear an impact of an armed clash in South China Sea, but the following three most likely threaten US interests and could push US to use force.
- As per the United States, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has the right to conduct military activities in Exclusive Economic Zone without coastal state consent. Whereas, China insists that reconnaissance activities should be done only with prior notification and permission of the coastal state. Else, it would contravene as violation of Chinese domestic as well as international law.
- As per the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, US could be drawn into the China-Philippines armed conflict because the treaty states that “an attack on either party in the Pacific area would be dangerous to its own peace and declare to meet the common dangers in accordance with the constitutional processes.” The cause of conflict will be the Reed Bank which is rich in natural gas deposits and is regarded as the red line for Philippines.
- The third contingency would involve dispute between Vietnam and China for drilling oil and natural gas and conducting seismic surveys. However, it is less likely that the US could be drawn into a conflict between China and Vietnam, but in case of Chinese aggression in the contested waters, Vietnam might request assistance. (India too has stakes in the Vietnamese region for exploration of oil and natural gas). So, Vietnam along with other nations could ask the United States for assistance in such a scenario.
Implications for U.S. Interests
If any of the contingencies occur, the US will have several significant security, political and economic interests at stake including the following –
- Global Norms: All the claimants in South China Sea have justified their claims based on the provisions made by UNCLOS and their coastline. However, China is reluctant to rely on a mix of both the legal claims as well as historic rights. The country has been using an ‘ambiguous’ nine-dashed line in its maps to show its territorial rights. Thus, US wants a peaceful resolution of the dispute as per the international law, failure of which could harm its interests there and elsewhere. Freedom of navigation is another contentious issue where the US and other regional states show interest. China’s position is that it respects and support freedom of navigation but insists that the foreign military should seek prior permission to sail in two hundred mile EEZ.
- Regional Stability and Alliance Security: All the US allies look up to this nation to maintain peace, order, free trade and secure sea lines of communication. They view the presence of US military in the South China Sea as a security guarantor, failing which they could themselves embark on potentially destabilizing arms buildup or heed to the demands of more powerful and dominating China. Neither situation would be in the US interest.
- Economic Interests: The South China Sea sees a trade of $5.3 trillion of which $1.2 trillion accounts to US trade. Should a crisis occur in the near future, the diversion of cargo would mean longer transits and increase in insurance rates. Therefore, any degree of conflict would hamper claimants from benefitting from South China Sea’s potential riches.
The probability of resolving this dispute is slim, but in the meantime, the US’ main concern should be on lowering the risk of potential armed clash for which several options are available. In the next part, I will suggest some few preventive and mitigating measures which can avert a crisis-like situation in the contested waters.