TAIPEI, TAIWAN —
China calmed Asia’s biggest maritime sovereignty dispute in 2017 by offering aid, investment and the pledge of negotiations with weaker Southeast Asian countries as Beijing’s chief nemesis, the United States, kept quiet.
These shifts in the South China Sea sovereignty dispute involving six governments allow Beijing to minimize public criticism of its claim to about 90 percent of the waters stretching from its southern coast to the island of Borneo. That calm in turn lowers risk of conflict.
“The U.S. State Department, the Pentagon, when they look at Asia they are inclined to think that it’s a peaceful place, because we’ve found a way to communicate despite disagreements and to accept disagreements as they are,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam assert sovereignty over all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Claimants prize the tropical body of water around some 500 tiny islands for its fisheries, marine shipping lanes and undersea fossil fuel reserves.
China cites historical fishing records to back its claims. Since 2010 the technologically superior country has angered its neighbors by using landfill to build up islets for military installations. In 2016, a world arbitration court ruled, at the Philippines’ request, against the legal basis for Chinese maritime claims.