The South China Sea: Navigating a Geopolitical Hotspot

Reference & EducationCollege & University

  • Author Jhoanna Ponseca Rosales
  • Published July 25, 2023
  • Word count 1,211

I. Introduction

The geopolitical issues of the South China Sea (SCS) are widely known and have been at the center of debate in the international community . Political negotiation, mediation, arbitration, judicial settlement, and other peaceful means were initiated to seek solution to the ongoing South China Sea territorial disputes. In this regard, this article seeks to answer the question: What are the main geopolitical issues driving the disputes in the South China Sea, and how have they evolved over time?

The history of conflict in the South China Sea dates back to 1279, when China drew a territorial map of its influence that included the entire South China Sea . Since then, control over the region has changed hands between regional powers and, later, colonial states. However, most people agree that the bulk of the current problems stem from the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, which followed Japan’s defeat in World War II . Within the terms of its surrender, Japan gave up its rights to its islands in the South China Sea, leaving a power vacuum in the region. No country was explicitly granted sovereignty over these waters, and China (the Kuomintang Government) asserted its advantage by submitting the now infamous “nine-dotted line” claim covering almost the entire South China Sea in 1947. This line became its official claim and is known today as the “Nine-Dash Line” . In 1982, the United Nations law established the exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Right after, China reiterated its nine-dash line, refusing to clarify the limits of this line and rejecting the claims of other claimant countries.

Currently, the South China Sea is considered a geopolitical hotspot because of its strategic location and its abundant natural resources, particularly oil and gas reserves. The region is also important for international trade, as approximately one-third of global shipping, half of global oil tanker traffic, and almost all of the natural gas transported by sea passes through the South China Sea.

The disputed claims to sovereignty over various islands, reefs, and features in the region also create tension and uncertainty, as they can lead to confrontations and clashes that escalate into military conflicts. This has led to an arms race, with countries in the region increasing their military capabilities and seeking alliances with external powers.

Furthermore, the South China Sea is also important for various international actors, including the United States, Japan, and India, who see the region as a potential area of influence and leverage to maintain regional and global stability. Beijing could eventually use its growing influence in the area to create a sphere of influence detrimental to United States interests .

Overall, the South China Sea's strategic location and abundant resources, coupled with the multiple countries' territorial claims, create a geopolitical hotspot that is a source of tension, competition, and power struggle between regional and global powers.

II. Findings/ Results

As a result of the analysis, the following key factors were identified in the tensions and conflicts in the South China Sea region: Competing territorial claims; Resource competition; Geostrategic interests; and, Military tensions.

Competing Territorial Claims

Several countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, resulting in disputes over sovereignty, jurisdiction, and control over maritime resources.

Resource competition

The South China Sea is rich in fisheries and potential oil and gas reserves. Competition for these resources has led to clashes between coastguard and fishing vessels, as well as disputes over oil and gas exploration activities.

Geostrategic Interests

The South China Sea is an important transportation hub for global trade, and its importance is increasing with China's rise as a major economic and military power. The United States and other regional players are also interested in maintaining their influence in the region. China has sought to assert its territorial claims and extend its influence in the South China Sea through the construction of artificial islands and military facilities. This has heightened tensions with other claimant states and raised concerns among the United States and other key powers in the region.

Hence, the need for multilateral approaches to resolving the disputes and ensuring stability in the South China Sea is necessary. This could include efforts to promote dialogue, confidence-building measures, and diplomatic initiatives to address the underlying drivers of the conflict.

III. Discussion

The Core Issues in the South China Sea Disputes

The issues behind the disputes in the South China Sea are multifaceted and complex, and center largely around sovereignty claims over territories and maritime features in the region.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have become a significant factor in the geopolitics of the region due to several factors: Economic importance; National Pride and Identity; Security; and, Strategic Advantages.

Economic importance

The South China Sea is one of the busiest and most strategic waterways in the world, with vital shipping lanes that serve as a link between the Indian and Pacific Ocean. The region is also believed to be rich in valuable natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and fisheries, which is of significant economic interest to the countries in the region and beyond.

National Pride and Identity

Nationalistic sentiments and historical claims drive the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Many countries in the region claim ownership of the disputed islands as a matter of national pride and identity. For example, China considers the South China Sea as an inseparable part of its national territory and has a long-standing claim over most of it.

Security

The South China Sea is home to multiple militaries and nuclear powers, and it is strategically located, making it a crucial element of a country's security strategy . The location of the South China Sea's disputed islands provides an advantageous position that enables countries to monitor and control traffic and supply lines.

Strategic Advantages

Various overlapping claims on the disputed islands provide countries with an opportunity to establish a military foothold in the region, creating clear strategic advantages for them. These disputes have led to increased military build-up, strained diplomatic relations, and heightened security risks, prompting regional and global powers to intervene in the region.

IV. Conclusion

There is no consensus among experts and scholars on the future of South China Sea disputes. Some experts believe that tensions in the region will escalate, while others think that the disputes will eventually be settled through diplomacy and negotiations. What is certain is that the war of words between US and Chinese forces deployed in the South China Sea is a manifestation of growing tension.

One potential solution that has been proposed by scholars and experts is the drafting of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. The COC would be a set of rules and principles agreed upon by all parties to manage and regulate their activities in the region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have been negotiating a COC for several years, although progress has been slow.

Another potential solution is the involvement of third-party mediators or international organizations, such as the United Nations, to help facilitate negotiations and resolve disputes in a peaceful and fair manner.

Overall, the future of South China Sea disputes remains uncertain and will depend on the actions of the countries involved and how they choose to address their differences.

2016 United Nations on Trade and Development.

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

Embassy of PRC. 2016. "China Adheres to the Position of Settling Through Negotiation the Relevant Disputes Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea."

Council on Foreign Relations. 2020. 1895-2020 Chinas Maritime Disputes.

Action, Center for Preventive. 2022. "Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea.".

Asia Report 2016. "Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters."

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