Heightened Tensions in the South China Seas

A history of territorial disputes involving multiple Asian nations has plagued the South and East China Seas for quite some time, although conflict has flared up even more so in recent years. Now, the presence of United States warships in the South China Seas has aggravated Chinese officials enough so that a spokesman for the Defense Ministry has called it a “serious infringement of China’s sovereignty.” On Sunday, May 27th, the ministry reportedly sent in naval forces and aircraft immediately to ward off the two American ships, the USS Antietam and the USS Higgins, present in the area.

The incident occurred near the Paracel Islands, a group of over one hundred small coral islands and reefs that have been claimed by the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Vietnam. Tensions have mounted higher and higher as China has continued to assert its territorial claims in waters shared with its neighbors. For example, contestation over the Japanese-owned Senkaku Islands between Japan, China, and Taiwan in the East China Seas has led to the involvement of the Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese Coast Guards.

Meanwhile, in the South China Seas, China has faced off against a number of Southeast Asian nations such as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This area serves as a home to a number of important shipping routes and sea lanes of communication (SLOC) essential to global trade. These waters also serve as rich fishing grounds that have grown more and more important over time due to the rise in demand corresponding with regional economic development. Additionally, these islands serve as a potential military base for Chinese maritime operations.

In what is known as freedom of navigation (FON) operations under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the US has sent in naval vessels to ensure free transit in what theoretically should be considered international waters. However, the effectiveness of laws defined by UNCLOS remains questionable and the Asian nations whose economies and military operations depend on this area have repeatedly challenged their authority.

Repeated Chinese challenge to U.S. operations in the South China seas comes at a time of high tension within the region. North Korea and the US have been in the midst of plans for a summit, which seem to keep falling apart. China remains North Korea’s foremost trading partner and is believed by experts to have played a role in keeping effective communication between the United States and the DPRK from taking place, perhaps to prevent another communist nation from falling under the Western capitalist influence.

Consequently, the presence of US warships in the South China Seas has been interpreted by the Chinese defense ministry as a breach of military trust between the two great powers. Meanwhile, the US has defended its right to intervene in the area under the argument that its maritime authorities must uphold international rights directly threatened by China and its excessive territorial claims.

Territorial disputes in contested waters and their consequences serve as a reminder that even in a time of globalization and increased international cooperation, nations will continue to work in ways that serve their own individual interests. China seeks to maintain its military presence and its role as a regional and global economic superpower. It has also grown increasingly wary of the development of relations between the United States and North Korea and what this may entail for the authority of its communist regime. It is therefore likely that military tensions between the United States and the PRC will only continue to rise.

Featured Image via Wikipedia

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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