South China Sea Dispute Intensifies

South China Sea Dispute Intensifies


ChinaThe ongoing dispute between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the U.S. about the ownership and rights to the channels of the South China Sea and its islands have reached a new pitch. On March 7, 2016, the foreign minister of China, Wang Yi, said that Beijing won’t permit other nations to interfere with China’s rights to their area. According to ABC News, the foreign minister told reporters and said that just because a country claims freedom of navigation, does not give it the right to do whatever it wants.

This statement could easily be seen as a reference towards the United States, who had sent naval ships through the area in their first freedom of navigation port in Jan. of 2016. The Naval Times reported Feb. 1, 2016 that the U.S Naval ships had indeed gone specifically through the South China Sea, the destroyer Curtis Wilbur sailed past the Paracel Islands chain, and three months before that, the destroyer Lassen did a patrol of the Spratly Islands, where China was shoring up sand and building artificial islands. As it turns out, the artificial islands are now being used for military bases, fuel storage and facilities.

At the time, China spoke out against the patrols, saying that the United States should be more concerned with building trust between nations. As it turns out the artificial islands are being built as military bases and facilities, something that China’s neighbors and rivals in the dispute over the South China Sea have expressed anger about, due to the violent history of clashes over control of the islands.

The Navy Times asked Zhiqun Zhu, an associate professor of political science and international relations at The China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, to elaborate on the historical context and importance of the islands. He explained that China sees all of the islands in the South China Sea as important, but the Paracels have a history of varying claims and control. Taiwan, China, and Vietnam all lay claim to the islands, currently.

The Paracel Islands were under the control of South Vietnam until 1974, when China fought and wrestled control away from them. Zhu explained that from China’s perspective, the issue should be resolved. However, in the late ’70s and ’80s oil and gas resources have been found on the islands, stirring up more conflict. China’s official argument seems to be that they have used the islands since ancient times, they were the first to discover them and use them for fishing and other practices. They have even found old European maps that corroborate this claim. China is stating that before international law was set down, they had a claim to the islands.

However, the Vietnamese standpoint is that they can lay claim to the islands due to their proximity. The U.S. factors into all of this due to wanting to maintain a show of military force and display their freedom of navigation. In the first week of March 2016, the destroyer John C. Stennis sailed into the waters that are being hotly contested, with four other American warships. The New York Times reports that they wanted to display a show of dominance, and although they passed without incident, it was noticed that there were more Chinese naval ships in the area. A Chinese officer told the state media that the naval ships were there to monitor, follow, identify and expel foreign ships and aircraft.

Zhu explained that the United States will not allow a challenger to replace it regionally or globally as a military superpower, and won’t even entertain the idea of a challenge in that sense. it seems that China is considering that stance very carefully, he says that the Chinese president is very assertive, and therefore, the country has also grown to be just as tough. Since the beginning of his term three years ago, President Xin JinPing has been steadily expanding the Chinese military net, far away from the mainland. This has been the cause of complaint and worry from China’s neighbors- the Philippines, South Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India- and growing consternation in the U.S.

Back in Feb. of 2016, Zhu was concerned that this show of military might from the U.S.- the increase of warships in the area, constant “routine checks”- could quickly morph into a massive power display, and if that happened, it wouldn’t just be between who was immediately involved. The U.S., Japan, and Australia could also get mixed up in the conflict, and it would possibly turn violent.

The New York Times reported that as of March 8, 2016, officials in Washington are increasingly worried about just that. The military bases China has built on top of their artificial islands don’t have the capabilities yet to threaten the U.S. but they easily pose a threat to the Philippines. The military expanse across the islands, with the antiship missiles, fighter jets, and a powerful radar could give China an additional rush of boldness that would make it more likely to overwhelm smaller claimants to the area.

In February 2016, Vietnam issued a formal complaint, stating that satellite photos had revealed that China had deployed HQ- 9 surface to air missile batteries on Woody, the biggest Spratly Island. Vietnam also said that there has been an influx of anti-Chinese sentiment and riots lately, due to the recent appearance of a Chinese oil drilling platform near the Paracels.

When the President Xi Jinping met with President Obama in September of 2015, he promised to pursue militarization of the Spratly islands, but not the Paracels. Chinese militarization strategists argue that they have a right to defend themselves, likening the measures to the United States having bases in Hawaii. They also stated that building up the islands will halt other territorial disputes over the islands. A researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that this will tell other countries with “provocations to stand down, that we are capable of pushing back.”

It has been pointed out by an American senior defense official that in while the Chinese military stance has increased, it has also strengthened the bonds between Philippines, Vietnam, and the United States. China insists that they are not the ones promoting militarization of the South China Sea and that other countries are guilty of that through patrols. The Chinese foreign minister maintains that the Chinese are the ones who should have control over the islands, and history will show who was a guest and who was a host.


The New York Times: South China Sea Buildup Brings Beijing Closer to Realizing Control
ABC News: China Says It Won’t Budge on South China Sea Sovereignty
The Naval Times: South China Sea standoff: ‘Both sides need to step back’

Image Courtesy of Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S 6th Fleet’s Flickr Page – Creative Common License