Contested Territory in South China Sea Continues to Stoke International Tensions

In response to China’s increasing military presence on man-made islands in the South China Seas, the United States recently ramped up its navigation operations in the area and has declared its support of free international trade and passage.

Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie recently stated that the U.S. military has had a great deal of experience taking down small islands since the Second World War. He later added that he was not attempting to exacerbate the existing tensions between the two superpowers with his statement.

Since 2014, China has been building artificial islands on top of existing islands, rocks, and coral reefs. The nation uses a fleet of ships to gather large deposits of sand into set locations and then proceeds to lay cement on top of this aforementioned sand. This creates a structure which is stable enough to support the building of airstrips, buildings, and other military installations.

Although these operations are very costly, Chinese officials feel that they are necessary to assert their military presence in the South China Sea. Nations such as Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all made conflicting territorial claims to the area.

The sea is thought to contain up to 17.7 billion tons of crude oil. The area is also used to transport more than half of the world’s crude oil and about 40% of the world’s natural gas supply. In addition, the sea is a rich fishing ground. China sends well over half of its maritime trading vessels through this waterway.

Currently, the sea’s Spratly Islands are controlled mainly by the Vietnamese, while the sea’s Paracel Islands are completely under Chinese control.

Increasing demand for oil and other resources, namely fish, may be compelling China to expand its military presence and influence in the area.

Although most international legal experts have concluded that China has made invalid historical claims to territories in this sea, China asserts that it has sovereignty over its waters, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The United States, however, begs to differ. The U.S. is not a signatory member of UNCLOS and supports the idea of free access to the South China Sea under international law. It has accused China of making excessive maritime claims and has continued to send in aircraft and naval vessels to conduct navigation operations throughout these waters.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, warned China in 2015 against continuing to construct manmade islands in the region. He then vowed that the U.S. would not halt its military operations in the area.

Rex Tillerson has also suggested blocking China’s access to these artificial islands, eliciting a threat of a large-scale war from China’s state-controlled communist newspaper, Global Times.

The issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea is not an easy one to solve. With its economic development only continuing to increase, China will most likely keep looking for ways to expand its military presence and its supply of natural resources.

China has not only made claims on the South China Sea, but has also attempted to claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and pieces of territory contested between China and India.

With talk of “blowing up” the Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea, the escalation of Sino-US maritime tensions into a military conflict has become even more likely.

At present, China continues to maintain its grip on this area as the world is concerned with other regional issues such as the nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

About Hyeonju Kwon

Hyeonju is a passionate environmentalist who loves to spend her time outdoors when she is not writing. She is also an avid yogi, hiker, reader, and bubble tea drinker. She finds that traveling is the best source of inspiration for virtually all things in life.

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