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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the administration of President Donald Trump is working on an Indo-Pacific strategy to guarantee the free passage of ships and cargo in the South China Sea. In a recent interview on Fox News, Pompeo indicated that the US was determined to protect its interests and those of its allies in the region. The dispute over sea borders between China and five other countries has now turned into a power tussle between the US and China.
China is claiming more than 80% of the sea with an incongruous concept called the “nine-dash line.” China’s claims, which it says are based on historical events, were rejected by the International Court of Justice in 2016.
However, China didn’t accept the ruling and started building artificial islands and installing military equipment on reefs. So what motivates China to do this?
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) data, global trade through the South China Sea in 2016 was valued at nearly US$3.37 trillion, whereas world trade stood at $15.9 trillion. Also, 40% of the global trade in liquified natural gas transited through the South China Sea in 2017, as reported by the US Energy Information Administration.
In terms of trade and its vast natural resources, the South China Sea has become exceptionally important for the region. It is estimated that 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie in the sea beds. A sea with billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources in a very strategic geopolitical location is a significant asset for China.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and China hold several, sometimes overlapping, territorial claims over the sea. In this struggle, the Philippines claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Scarborough Islands on which China is adding hectares of land for its military bases. The US Department of Defense claimed that China has created 13,000 hectares of new land on the Spratly Islands since 2013.
The conflict in the region began in 2014 when China started deploying drilling rigs in waters near the Paracel Islands, leading to numerous confrontations between Vietnamese and Chinese ships. Then the Chinese developed the Spratly archipelago and installed heavy military installations on them to control much of the sea. Moreover, they established a city on Woody Island in order to increase Chinese tourism and human activity on the archipelago to give weight to its claim.
The conflict in the region began in 2014 when China started deploying drilling rigs in waters near the Paracel Islands, leading to numerous confrontations between Vietnamese and Chinese ships
But here is a technical issue: According to Article 57 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. It means China cannot claim an EEZ that is more than 200 nautical miles from its mainland. But the extremely rich natural resources prompted the Chinese to come up with the unusual “nine-dash line” concept.
The increasing Chinese military and economic influence in one of the busiest sea routes in the world prompted the hawkish US administration to work to contain China’s rise in the region.
The United States is working on an Indo-Pacific Strategy with affected countries in the region to ensure the sea lanes remain open. The strategy consists of three components, namely military, diplomatic and commercial.
Pompeo has also confirmed that the US will increase patrols in the region to ensure free commercial activities. Recently, the USS McCampbell, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer, conducted a freedom of navigation (FONOP) exercise, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands. Also on May 9, the US, Japan, India, and the Philippines conducted a joint drill in the South China Sea to express their disapproval of China’s increasing illicit activities.
The presence of Chinese troops on the artificial islands is really fractious for both the US and the five claimant countries. The recently developed Fiery Cross Island is a glaring example of China’s confrontational posture. They built a 3,000-meter airstrip for fighter planes with radar and a heavy missile system. Also, some 200 troops are stationed there to monitor the region. Satellite images have confirmed that before 2014 it didn’t exist.
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A more worrisome development is that besides Fiery Cross Island, the Chinese have established five more military bases across the South China Sea.
According to the CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Chinese military personnel are stationed on Cuarteron Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, Johnson Reef, Hughes Reef, and Gaven Reef.
Militarizing 80% of the sea lanes makes the Chinese an extremely formidable force in the region. Moreover, the regime is working on the so-called “cabbage strategy” to encircle islands with as many ships as possible to help the Chinese strengthen their presence on the archipelagoes.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic mistake by the Americans gave China an edge in the South China Sea. The United States didn’t initially react when the Chinese started deploying drilling rigs and building new military bases on the Spratly Islands. Now China has six military bases on different islands, which makes it more difficult for the US Navy to push back.
To reinforce its heavy presence in the sea, China recently announced a $23.5 million contract for a coast guard ship to patrol the Paracel Islands. Many policymakers see this step as another effort by the Chinese regime to maintain its claims over the whole sea.
So how can the United States resolve this dispute? The Trump administration has so far suggested three components that could de-escalate the tensions. Using a combination of diplomacy and military force, the United States seeks to roll back the Chinese developments. But it looks like a difficult game for the Americans, so it is now even more necessary for the US to bring all countries in the region to one table to exert pressure on Beijing. China’s ambition to become a superpower also prevents it from retreating. Moreover, if the US retreats, it could be a win for China in its quest to become a superpower in the near future.