Is a cold war brewing in the South China Sea?



US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the administration of President Donald Trump is working on an Indo-Pacific strategy to guarantee the free passage of ships and cargo in the South China Sea. In a recent interview on Fox News, Pompeo indicated that the US was determined to protect its interests and those of its allies in the region. The dispute over sea borders between China and five other countries has now turned into a power tussle between the US and China.

China is claiming more than 80% of the sea with an incongruous concept called the “nine-dash line.” China’s claims, which it says are based on historical events, were rejected by the International Court of Justice in 2016.

However, China didn’t accept the ruling and started building artificial islands and installing military equipment on reefs. So what motivates China to do this?

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) data, global trade through the South China Sea in 2016 was valued at nearly US$3.37 trillion, whereas world trade stood at $15.9 trillion. Also, 40% of the global trade in liquified natural gas transited through the South China Sea in 2017, as reported by the US Energy Information Administration.

In terms of trade and its vast natural resources, the South China Sea has become exceptionally important for the region. It is estimated that 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie in the sea beds. A sea with billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources in a very strategic geopolitical location is a significant asset for China.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and China hold several, sometimes overlapping, territorial claims over the sea. In this struggle, the Philippines claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Scarborough Islands on which China is adding hectares of land for its military bases. The US Department of Defense claimed that China has created 13,000 hectares of new land on the Spratly Islands since 2013.

The conflict in the region began in 2014 when China started deploying drilling rigs in waters near the Paracel Islands, leading to numerous confrontations between Vietnamese and Chinese ships. Then the Chinese developed the Spratly archipelago and installed heavy military installations on them to control much of the sea. Moreover, they established a city on Woody Island in order to increase Chinese tourism and human activity on the archipelago to give weight to its claim.