Implications of an Armed Conflict in South China Sea

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...

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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
Source: Indian Defence Review

The Chinese Map Showing Nine-Dashed Line Stating Territorial Claims

  • 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.

Akanksha Mittal

Akanksha Mittal, an avid reader, frequent traveler and a passionate blogger hails from Delhi, the capital of India. Her key areas of interest lies in politics, foreign policy, and international relations. When it comes to learning about different faiths and cultures, she is always curious. She can be reached at [email protected]
2 Comments on this post.
  • Roger Hawcroft
    Roger Hawcroft
    20 August 2015 at 6:35 am
    Leave a Reply

    I know that I am an idealist and probably hopelessly naive, so please excuse me for what I’m about to write – you may see it as somewhat pathetic or silly.

    There are two major nations here who between them comprise over a fifth of the World’s population. Both nations, in modern history, have experienced colonialist influence and exploitation. Both nations successfully resisted and repelled those who sought to control them. Both nations have chequered histories in terms of their treatment of indigenous groups and both have seen internal conflict and revolution. Both have indifferent records in relation to human and civil rights.

    In spite of superficial trappings that suggest political ideologies that are diametrically opposed, in reality both nations follow a capitalist economic approach that privileges the few at the expense of the many.

    It seems to me that these super-powers are not that different. If there is a conspicuous difference, in my view it would simply be that China continues to attempt to lay claim to territory outside its borders (or previously recognised borders) and to project an image of being willing to use military might to control such territory. Even in this regard, however, I don’t see this as being all that different to the US’s use of AID inducements, alliances and even direct military intervention to secure assets outside its own borders, even if not to annex those territories.

    I understand that the US has had little option but to act as a “World Policeman” since 1945. It is a perhaps unforeseen and unwanted obligation for its victory in WWII. By the same taken, China’s contribution to that conflict and the millions of its people it lost to the War appear to have been ignored by the West. Perhaps that is a not unreasonable contributing factor to some of the positions it has taken that the West sees as inappropriate or even threatening. Paradoxically, however, it is the US that has been continually engaged in warfare and armed conflict since the end of WWII whereas, since the end of China’s civil war & declaration of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, China may have postured but, unless I have my facts wrong, hasn’t engaged in armed conflict beyond its borders.

    So, why did I start out talking of naivety? Well, here you go – if I am reasonably correct in my understanding of the history of these two powerful nations and their actions over the last 70 years, surely they are seeking essentially the same outcomes. It is 2015 and both countries have space technology and intelligent populations. Why then can’t the leaders of these countries get together and work out a solution to these territorial disputes? If there are massive resource deposits under the sea, why can’t a sharing arrangement be worked out that will benefit not only the USA and China but all the peoples of the World who have even less – those living in poverty, those wrestling with massive influxes of dispossed and refugees, those without sewerage, sanitation, education and reasonable housing?

    I’m just a slum kid from Yorkshire who’s lived through this period so what do I know? Not much I guess but enough to see that posturing, pouring $billions into armaments, risking war and its consequences, and insisting on highlighting difference rather than commonalities, is neither productive, sensible, nor safe.

    Perhaps some of these “leaders” need to sit down with some children and listen to what they might suggest about resolving these problems – or is that just my childish naivety, again?

  • Akanksha Mittal
    Akanksha Mittal
    20 August 2015 at 7:16 am
    Leave a Reply

    Thank You Mr. Roger Hawcroft for taking your valuable time out and post a comment on the article.

    Firstly, Sir, I would like to say that it is your right to voice your opinion on this public platform and I am glad that you have read the article and suggested what you think is right. And I totally agree to your points that both nations run on a capitalist agenda benefiting a few and ignoring many and are merely aggressors for claiming for a piece of land.

    Apart from it, I would like to state that although the US is trying very hard to act and maintain its position as you rightly called “World Policeman”, but China is no less of an aggressor. And I refute the point made that post 1949, the Chinese did NOT engage in an armed conflict. In fact, the Chinese are constantly lay claims to Tibet to counter Asia’s second largest economy – INDIA. So, it illegitimately boasts of Tibet being an integral part of China post the 1950 invasion by the People’s Liberation Army. Also, who can forget the 1962’s Sino-Indian war and it is still in the aggression mode in the Aksai Chin region (the disputed region in Jammu & Kashmir where Pakistan and China lay claims)and Arunachal Pradesh (which is a sovereign part of India). It is still meddling in the internal affairs of Nepal so that it can use the land to work against India.

    Regarding the last part of your response, you will see in today’s post that I have enlisted the same options which you have suggested for a peaceful resolution in the contested waters as this article is a two-part series.

    Looking forward to your opinion on the same.

    Thank You 🙂 🙂

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