The South China Sea has become the flashpoint between the ambitions of rising superpower China and a decades-long regional status quo upheld by the United States.
The Spratly Islands, a small group of reefs and shoals off the eastern coast of the Philippine island of Palawan, has become the focal point of that struggle. Tensions have continued to rise over the disputed area, and America’s next commander in chief faces the prospect of armed skirmishes with the strongest foe that the United States has faced in more than a half century.
The Spratly archipelago spans much of the southern portion of the sea, and some of its atolls, reefs and shoals have been claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. China has claimed sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and all the Spratlys.
The South China Sea is an important maritime route for global transportation, with about $5.3 trillion in trade shipped over its waters each year — $1.2 trillion belonging to the United States. The waters are also heavily fished, particularly by China. Valuable minerals and petroleum are believed to lie beneath the sea bed.
In 2015, satellite photos revealed that China had during a very short period built up Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs by pumping up sand from the sea floor. It had then built facilities and runways on the three expanded reefs.
U.S. officials protested, describing the activities as militarization and a threat to freedom of the seas.
As a backdrop was a case filed in 2013 by the Philippines with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, requesting a ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The case was filed under provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an agreement China had signed.
In July, the tribunal announced its findings that China had no right to build artificial islands on reefs within the so-called exclusive economic zones of other nations and that China’s argument that it had had historical rights to the territory became null when it signed the U.N. sea convention.