Despite what the name might suggest, the South China Sea (SCS) is not actually owned by China. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, SCS is considered as ‘internationally owned territory’- basically, no one can boss people around in the sea. There is, however, a way to circumvent this law; if you own a piece of land, then a limited area of the ocean surrounding it can be claimed. This is why there’s so many countries fighting over two small chains of islands, Paracels and Spratlys. Although they are essentially just a bunch of rocks in the middle of the ocean, their location allows the ones who owns them to also own a large portion of the SCS as their exclusive economic zone.
There are three main claimants that argue that they are the rightful owners: China, Vietnam and Philippines. However, China in particular has been developing an unusual attachment; not only is it claiming the largest portion, it’s doing so quite violently. One of the most significant event involved China and Vietnam, leaving more than 70 Vietnamese troops killed after engaging in a naval conflict over the Crescent group of Paracel islands on January 16th 1974. Another encounter between the two countries in 1988 was as equally unpleasant, ending up with 70 Vietnamese sailors dead and China finally achieving its goal of owning the ‘nine-dash line’.
Map showing the ‘nine-dash line,’ area of the South China Sea claimed by China (taken from BBC News available here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349)
The international society was rudely reminded of the conflict when recently, in February 18th 2016, China deployed its missile defence system on Woody Island. The general concern is that the SCS is gradually becoming militarised, and this is enough to set the alarms blazing, especially considering that it is still a contested area with a number of claimants. US Secretary of State John F. Kerry solemnly warned that there will be a “very serious conversation” with Beijing.
Now, the biggest question is: will there be another war? Considering the complexity of relationship between South East Asian nations, some may even think that the conflict might accelerate into a Third World War. Of course, it would be way too dramatic to assume that what happened in 1939 will happen again. After all, we are all far too aware of the disastrous consequences the war will bring- a war that might involve nuclear weapons. It is too risky for the whole of humanity to gamble over what is really only a speckle of islands. Yet, the debate remains; can the deployment of missile be seen as an act of militarisation, and therefore a military threat?
Although China does not seem to think so, it is alone in asserting that the missiles mean no harm. What the Western world and the South-east Asian nations see is simply an image of strong Chinese military gradually bulking itself up to prey on the weaker nations. Even if China does not intend to actually exert its military power in the region, the fact that it is capable of doing so will intimidate the other nations claiming the islands and eventually silence them. Later, even the mere possibility of challenging the Chinese will become extremely slim for the South-east Asian nations; as is often the case in high schools, the bully will get his own way.
Then why is US so unhappy with this development? Is it because of their burning desire to see the justice prevail in the world? I guess yes, partly that, but probably the main reason for its annoyance is in the fact that China is already very, very big threat to US hegemony in international affairs. Its incredibly fast economic development enabled it to rival the superpower, and with the ideological divide- well, no one can tell what might happen next. Will tension keep rising, but only in the limited region of South China Sea? Or will China’s tacit threat become a big enough spark in the peaceful pacific?