What You Need to Know About the South China Sea, the World’s Next Hot Spot


China is equipping itself with several new “assassin’s maces” as two world powers brace for impact in the South China Sea.

If you look at the South China Sea on a map, then it might seem inevitable that this 1.4 million square miles of water would become a territorial quagmire.

Bordered by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other nations, the area includes the busiest sea lanes in the world—about a third of the world shipping passes through every year, with cargo valued around $3 trillion. With evidence pointing to huge oil and gas reserves, all of the surrounding countries want a piece of the pie.


Recently, however, the game has changed in the South China Sea, and the reason is China flexing its muscle. Previously, China had not been strong enough to press its claims in the South China Sea, but things are changing under President Xi Jinping’s military buildup. None of China’s neighbors has the military clout to stop it. But the U.S. does. And while America has officially not taken sides in the dispute—and would prefer to avoid an actual battle with China—the United States can bring overwhelming power to bear if needed, and has spent the past few years reorienting its attention toward the Pacific.

China, meanwhile, has little prospect of beating the U.S. in a straight fight. But the Chinese military is arming itself with exotic new weapons to neutralize the American advantage. “The biggest concern is that . . . they are getting to a point where the PLA leadership may actually tell [Chinese president] Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities,” a U.S. Official told Reuters.

Here’s what you need to know about a region that could become the world’s next boiling point.

Disputes over who owns the South China Sea have been going on for decades. While China’s cold clashes with the U.S. and its antagonism toward Taiwan grab the most headlines, the superpower has been in conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Malaysia at one time or another.

China bases its maritime claim on centuries of history, when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were part of the country. China regards the so-called “nine dash line,” which extends more than a thousand miles from the Chinese coast in places and to within a few hundred miles of other countries, as sovereign territory and insists that that foreign military operations are not allowed in this zone.

China’s backed up this assertion by building artificial islands in the South China Sea and putting military installations on the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In 2016, a UN tribunal supported the Philippines that China had violated its sovereign rights in the South China Sea. But China refuses to be bound by this ruling. If the past several years are any indication, don’t expect a diplomatic solution anytime soon.

Meanwhile the U.S. has responded to the Chinese claims with “freedom of navigation operations,” asserting its right to traverse international waters by sailing American destroyers close to the Chinese bases. This has led to hostile encounters and near-collisions with Chinese warships, with one Chinese commander even suggested ramming American ships intruding in “their” waters.