The unresolved status of various islands, shoals and atolls combined with tantalizing hints of immense hydrocarbon and fisheries wealth has prompted a “Scramble for Africa-esque” race among countries bordering the South China Sea. A web of overlapping territorial claims, has resulted in increased tensions and defense spending in the region.
Six nations (China, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) have various overlapping claims in the region, and all are at odds with China. China claims virtually the entirety of the South China Sea, and these claims – collectively known as the Nine Dash Line – have sparked the interest of the United States. Seeking to balance against the rise of Chinese naval power, the U.S had begun strengthening ties with middle and smaller powers concerned about Beijing’s assertiveness in the region.
Recently, U.S Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated that the United States is considering stationing naval vessels close to Chinese claimed atolls. On many of these small outcroppings, (which are often below the waterline at high-tide), China has built artificial islands in order to boost its claims. Carter mentioned that one option under consideration would be to place U.S. ships at least 12 miles (19.3 km) from these artificial islands. This number is important, because territorial waters constitute an important part of sovereignty. Specifically, states have the ability to extend law enforcement measures into these waters, although they must allow for ‘innocent passage’ of foreign military and commercial vessels.
In response to Carter’s statements, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that while China respects freedom of navigation, the positioning of military vessels within its territorial waters was unacceptable. Reactions from other South China Sea nations, such as the Philippines were more favourable; with Manila stating that America had a legitimate interest in the region and that China’s Nine Dash Line was unlawful.
While the United States has not officially sided with any of the claimants in the South China Sea dispute, Washington takes an active interest in the region. The U.S has military ties with the Philippines and such as been engaged in capacity building efforts with Manila. Moreover, Washington is seeking to boost relations with Vietnam, as Hanoi is concerned about Chinese hegemony, and views the U.S as a suitable balance to China.
The United States Navy is currently the most powerful in the world, and America’s force projection extends deep into the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Washington’s global reach allows for increased international maritime security, thus creating a Pax Americana, or a global maritime peace that facilitates shipping. This is especially apparent in the South China Sea, which is home to major sea lines of communication (SLOC), facilitating some $5 trillion in trade per year. All nations, including China, benefit from American naval involvement in protecting global trade, and as such do not directly challenge this facet of American power. Consequently, China must balance military agitation in the region with its more pressing economic interests, thus dampening potential conflict.