China’s foray into the controversial and disputed South China Sea is not a new phenomenon. It is part of Beijing’s long term strategy to bring a large area of land and sea into its sphere of influence. This is being done by China mainly to harness resources exclusively. More recently, China’s firing of medium range missiles into the South China Sea is a growing assertion, largely to reflect its sovereignty over disputed waters. Such action by China has attempted to demonstrate its strategic dominance and sovereignty over the whole of South China Sea.
China has also been engaging itself in military exercises over its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The growing frequency of exercises and the new types of capabilities displayed has demonstrated the progress China has achieved in its continuing military modernisation programme.
Initially, under the guise of “peaceful rise of China” Beijing could project its forays as cooperative engagement with countries in the periphery. Even the US, especially under the Obama administration gave the benefit of doubt to Xi Jinping. The US also advocated a UN intervention and a peaceful resolution to maritime disputes in the area claimed as “South China Sea”, although other countries contested the new name.
The Donald Trump administration took a strong view of the situation and began to deviate from the earlier stand, rejecting China’s maritime claims in South China Sea. As expected, this resulted in the escalation of hostilities between two competing world powers. In response to China’s recent action, the US military has stepped up operations in the area including the deployment of two aircraft carriers in the waters China claims.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted the “unprecedented threat that the allies of US in the region face” from People’s Republic of China (PRC) and described China’s claims in SCS as “completely unlawful”. Elaborating US’ policy further, Pompeo went on to say that China could not lawfully claim waters around the Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands, which an international tribunal in 2016 found to be part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The US also rejected the Chinese claim to waters surrounding Vanguard Bank off the coast of Vietnam, Luconia Shoals off Malaysia, waters in Brunei’s exclusive economic zone, and Natuna Besar off Indonesia. Washington has also not recognised Beijing’s claims to James Shoal, an entirely submerged area just 50 nautical miles from Malaysia but nearly 1,000 nautical miles from China’s coast.