Last week, Hanoi released video footage of its vessels being rammed by the Chinese Coast Guard after Vietnam tried to block China’s attempt to commence drilling for hydrocarbons off the coast of central Vietnam. China also protested the Philippines’ May 9 arrest of Chinese fishermen at a shoal 60 miles off its southwestern coast for allegedly possessing large marine turtles, an endangered species.
At first glance, the clashes may seem like a contest for energy and fishing resources, and they are often reported as such.
But they are far more important than that.
The continental shelf certainly has deposits already being exploited by all parties off their respective coasts. But these are mostly small. While economically significant for Malaysia and Vietnam, they are unlikely to yield resources on a meaningful scale for China.
Instead, the territory’s significance is primarily strategic for Beijing. As such, this is an issue of huge importance for the United States — which insists that the sea is part of international waters — and for other countries such as Japan, for which the sea provides a crucial link to the West, the Middle East, and much of South and Southeast Asia.
Indeed for two millennia this sea has been a generator of global trade by providing the link between China and northeast Asia and the spice and forest islands of southeast Asia, on the one hand, and with India, Iran, the Arab world, western Europe and Africa.