The South China Sea (SCS) is the epicenter of international conflicts and strategic interests of two key powers of the modern world – China and the United States. This region, with its rich resources and key geopolitical location, attracts the attention of various powers and forces within them.

The South China Sea washes the shores of six countries. China, which claims most of the territory, and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others whose interests overlap with Chinese claims. The government of the island of Taiwan also lays claim to the territory of the South China Sea, which only compounds the complexity of the situation.

In addition to the countries of the region, external forces also influence the situation in the South China Sea. First of all, the United States, which actively supports freedom of navigation in the region and expresses an interest in maintaining stability, which leads to tense relations with China.


Origins of the geopolitical node


The South China Sea problem has both legal and political aspects. At the legal level, questions arise about the status of islands, rocks and shoals in the region and their impact on economic zones and the rights of states. The political dynamics are driven by a wide range of interests, including the region’s logistical importance as an important transportation hub, the presence of rich natural resources such as oil and gas, and a strategic location for security and influence in the region.


Legal issues


The concept of sovereign territory and nation-state emerged only during the Industrial Revolution and after the formation of nation-states. In ancient times this concept did not exist. For example, Zheng Heng’s famous voyage to the Indian Ocean via the South China Sea was not an exercise of sovereignty, but rather a display of imperial power. Western colonization played a decisive role in the development of the concept of sovereignty in Southeast Asia.

According to Chinese historical references, the archipelagos of Xisha (西沙羣島Paracel Islands), Nansha (南沙群島Spratly) and other islands of the South China Sea were discovered 2 thousand years ago by Chinese sailors. They also appear as Chinese territories on maps of the Song era (11th century) and subsequent dynasties (Yuan, Ming and Qing).
However, other states in the region also have strong arguments. Thus , Vietnam claims that it has documentary evidence of control over part of the islands since the 17th century, and the Philippine authorities refer to the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza on the division of spheres of influence between Portugal and Spain, whose colony was the Philippines. Then, after gaining control over the Philippines, the United States had rights to their part of the islands. In 1933, France, whose colony at that time was Vietnam, made its claims to another part of the islands. The French government of Saigon made claims against China until 1936, when the Republic of China put forward its claims to sovereignty in the region. The concept of sovereignty has become key to determining the political status of maritime territories. The outbreak of World War II interrupted these developments when Japan occupied the South China Sea and attacked Pearl Harbor.

After the war, the Potsdam Proclamation recognized the need to return Japanese-occupied territories, including the South China Sea. However, the question of who should return control of the region remained unresolved. Only the Republic of China and the Philippines were sovereign countries, while other states such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei remained colonies.

The Republic of China gained control of the South China Sea, but did not have a navy forces. To help her, the United States provided warships to patrol the region. After Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war and evacuated to Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, declared itself the successor to China and, accordingly, the rights to the South China Sea. At this point, US hopes of using the sea through the puppet regime of the Republic of China collapsed.

At the present stage, the key point in the legal debate about the South China Sea is the interpretation of international law on maritime boundaries and sovereignty. Different countries have different interpretations of these concepts, which creates tension and conflict in the region. Most of the South China Sea is made up of reefs, and only Taiping Island has the natural feature of an island as it has fresh water. Unlike islands, the situation with reefs complicates the issue of sovereignty and maritime rights. The designation of Taiping Island as an island or reef plays a key role in determining China’s maritime rights in the area.


Political issues


Countries in the region and external players pursue their interests in the areas of security, trade and strategic influence. The main players here are the United States, which perceives maritime freedom as a key element of its global strategy, and China, which seeks to expand its influence in the region.


  • Resources

Disputes over the South China Sea flared up with renewed vigor in the 1980s. The reason is simple – oil was found in this region. The discovery of oil fields was the initial cause of tension in the region. However, the extraction of these resources does not promise to fully recoup the investment, and existing deposits are already being mined. Despite this, there are still significant untapped oil reserves in the southern South China Sea.

As oil was discovered in the South China Sea, all countries adjacent to it put forward their claims to sovereignty in these waters. A particular dispute has arisen between China and Vietnam, as both countries claim continental shelf space in the area. An example is the Battle of Xisha and Nansha Islands, where the power of the Chinese fleet became a limiting factor for Vietnam.


  • Transport node

The location of the South China Sea, at the junction of the Indian and Pacific oceans, has high strategic value in the context of global trade routes. More than 25% of global cargo traffic and more than 60% of China’s energy imports pass through this region. It is China’s energy dependence that is becoming a key factor determining this country’s strategic interest in controlling the islands in this region.

Control over energy transportation routes for the world’s second largest economy is one of the most important aspects of China’s strategic development. One of the goals of China’s Belt and Road strategy is to diversify resource supply routes. For the same reason, the Chinese government takes an active position in all territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas.


  • Geopolitics

From a geopolitical perspective, the South China Sea is part of a chain of strategic boundaries linking China to the world’s oceans. This chain stretches from the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea through the Diaoyu Islands (钓鱼岛), the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea proper to the Strait of Malacca.

Control over these key points is equivalent to control over the operational space of the entire Asian Pacific coast. For China, the South China Sea islands are a springboard for projecting strategic power into the ocean. At the same time, for the United States, these islands are part of a potential “Chinese Wall”, directed against China itself, restraining it in the grip of coastal waters.

The South China Sea islands are also important for China’s strategic stability as strongholds for China’s military forces to enter the operational space. Moreover, we are talking not only about the projection of naval forces, but also about strategic nuclear forces (SNF). China is guided by a strategy of a guaranteed response to a nuclear attack, for which it needs to use the full power of its nuclear triad, and primarily submarines. It is not possible to use submarines to launch missiles in the immediate vicinity of the Chinese coast – many islands and shallow waters do not allow diving to a safe depth. This determines the importance of the Chinese Navy moving beyond the first island chain. Therefore, China modernized its naval and air forces in 2008, the Chinese Navy launched new warships and developed new bombers. This allowed them to operate in the first island chain. The South China Sea, considered an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”


Intersection of strategic concepts


The importance of the South China Sea to the United States is underscored by its desire for sea power and control of trade routes. This strategy of sea power, developed in the late 19th century by Alfred Mahan, involves dominance of the seas as a means of securing economic and military power. The South China Sea stands out as a key point in the geopolitical struggle for influence and control of maritime resources in the region.

The idea of key regions in the world has changed over time; in the modern world, the region of the Pacific and Indian Oceans can be called such. For the United States, this region is becoming a primary interest, which is reflected in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. And the South China Sea occupies a key place in this strategy.

Under the doctrine of sea power, the United States seeks to create asymmetric alliances in which it would be a supplier of power to junior partners, in exchange gaining access to their exclusive economic zones. An example of such a strategy is the alliance with the Philippines and attempts to create such an alliance with Vietnam. However, there is no force in the South China Sea that can rival China’s scale. This leads to the need for the United States to find partners who can help it challenge Chinese influence. As part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the US is trying to make India such a power.

In 2012, US intervention in the problems of the South China Sea led to their internationalization of the South China Sea problem – the transition of a regional conflict into a global one. Seeking a return to the Asia-Pacific region, the United States needed a starting point. There were several such points of competition with China: Taiwan, the North Korean nuclear issue, Xinjiang, Tibet and the South China Sea. US interests in Taiwan are gradually diminishing, and they are moving to a strategy of increasing the cost to Beijing of reunifying the island with the mainland. In the North Korean problem, the interests of the two countries largely coincide – they do not want to allow the crisis to escalate into a hot phase. Xinjiang cannot be used as a major tool due to the fact that China maintains friendly relations with the Islamic world and Muslim countries do not want to oppose China. Tibet is a weak point in maintaining external tension, since most Tibetans live inside China and not outside it, so they cannot be used to maintain the intensity of external pressure on China. Therefore, the only point of maintaining external pressure on China remains the South China Sea.

China is responding to these strategic pressures by increasing engagement with countries in the region. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forward the concept of solving the problems of the South China Sea only within the framework of the countries of the region, without involving outside forces. The China+ASEAN format has become a platform for resolving disputes. In this way, Beijing is trying to knock Washington out of the game around the South China Sea. The American concept of the Indo-Pacific is also being dealt a blow. China works directly with India in formats such as BRICS, which helps reduce strategic tension between the countries.


The China Studies Centre