With binoculars in hand I scan the horizon from our ship’s balcony; but this time I am not looking for whales or dolphins. I am looking for Chinese war ships, half expecting for us to be blown out of the water by an enemy missile. You see, we are passing through the South China Sea (SCS), probably the most disputed waters in the world at this moment in history.
The South China Sea does not, despite its name, belong to China. Strong claims by China that it has maritime rights to these important waters and owns the resources above and beneath the ocean floor, can not be proven and are, plainly speaking, a lie. What is so special about this area to prompt the US Navy to send its war ships into the South China Sea this week? To start, the South China Sea is a maritime super highway - 30% of the world’s maritime traffic passes through the region, so does 70% of China’s and Japan’s oil. The SCS also is rich in fish and, oh yeah I almost forgot, the world’s 3rd largest oil and natural gas reserves lie under the gentle waves of the South China Sea.
It was 1947 when China first claimed ownership of the region. In 2004 the Chinese government reasserted its stance by stating that China claims “…indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea and its adjacent waters. They call SCS a “core interest” for China, which, in diplomatic speak, means that they are prepared to defend their perceived rights to the SCS militarily if necessary.
Many countries claim territories that are not their own, so what is so different about this dispute? Personally, I think it is the brazenness with which the Chinese are asserting themselves in the region. At the time of my writing, China is building artificial islands on the reefs in the Spratly, Paracel and Zhongsha Islands. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) also upgraded the status of the region from a county - level administrative unit to a Prefecture and declared “Sansha”, with its 1,000 inhabitants, the de facto capital city. China has built light houses and airstrips, set up oil rigs, established military installations, is inviting cruise ships to visit and is arming a “fisherman militia” to help protect the region from intruding opposition forces.
Needless to say, many countries bordering the South China Sea are nervous about China’s influence in the region and the existence of these new artificial islands. This has led to an unexpected benefit for American international relations: countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia and Taiwan, all of which lay claims to at least some of the territory, are driven into the arms of the USA. After all, the US is the only force, which even remotely could counter the brazen advances of China in the region. It will be interesting to see how the conflict is going to unfold.