Fire and water are juxtaposed in the phraseology of elements, but Robert Kaplan’s book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific alludes to how a large water body is now a simmering cauldron. If modern-day geopolitical advantages are said to be shaped by three things, trade, natural resources, and supply chains, then all those three aspects are epitomized by who controls the South China Sea.
In terms of natural resources, the South China Sea has 11 billion barrels of oil, around 190 trillion feet of natural gas, 40 percent of global liquified natural gas (LNG), and 12 percent of the world’s fisheries, caught by 50 percent of all the fishing vessels globally. When it comes to trade, 30 percent of the world’s shipping trade flows through these waterways; that is around between $3-5 trillion worth of trade—or somewhere between the economies of India and Japan. Anything with the “Made in China” tag likely flows through this region.
This region services a market of 2.2 billion people, China’s 1.5 billion and around 650 million people in the region that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) calls home. That itself is one-quarter of global humanity in just a single region.
The Militarization of the South China Sea
Fiery Cross Reef is one square mile in size and home to a military base with a 10,000-foot airstrip and a missile defense system, radar system, and about 200 troops. It’s not the fifteenth century, so China hasn’t just innocuously planted its flags and posted a watchtower there. Satellite images show that Fiery Cross Reef was established in 2016, but, strangely enough, it was just rocks and gravel two years before that; the base didn’t exist in 2014. This isn’t the only one either: there are five other military bases in the South China Sea—Cuarteron Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef.