In Depth

What is China doing in the South China Sea?

US goads Beijing by sailing a ship through the Taiwan Strait, prompting 'deep concern'

Tensions between Beijing and Washington rose once again this week after the US military confirmed that it sent a Navy warship through the Taiwan Strait, a move likely to anger China.

The USS Antietam conducted a routine transit through the strait as the country attempts to push back China’s claims on the sea with freedom of navigation operations, the Daily Express reports.

With tensions already high between China and the US over a range of diplomatic issues, Beijing expressed "deep concerns" yesterday over the passage of the ship - just a day after China warned that it is ready for war if there was any move towards Taiwanese independence.

Al Jazeera reports that the question of US support for Taiwanese independence is among a “growing number of flashpoints” in the US-China relationship, which include a “trade war, US sanctions and China's increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom-of-navigation patrols”.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing said the “Taiwan question is the most sensitive and important issue between China and the US”.

The South China Sea, fractions of which are claimed by a multitude of countries, is fast becoming the epicentre of diplomatic disputes - either directly or indirectly - between China and the rest of the world.

Control over it, according to the US and China, is vital. Each year around $3trn (£2.33trn) of shipborne trade passes through the waterway, which is also home to large fishing grounds and possible reserves of oil and natural gas, reports Reuters.

What the UN says

The South China Sea is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, says Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute. Economic growth in the region in recent years has led to a significant increase in the amount of commercial merchant shipping passing through the channel, which is also an important route for importing goods to countries including Japan and South Korea.

Following rising tensions between these various parties in the 1980s, the United Nations drafted a Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994.

The deal was intended to balance the economic and security interests of the countries involved by dividing the sea into Exclusive Economic Zones - 200-nautical-mile stretches of water extending out from the coastline of each border nation - and making the rest international waters.

To enforce this, third-party nations conduct “freedom of navigation” military operations in the waterway.

China vs. the world

Although China is a signatory to UNCLOS, the government believes it has a historic right to a vast swathe of the sea marked by what Beijing calls the “nine-dash line”.

No other country recognises the nine-dash line, and in 2013 an arbitration tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines after it claimed that China had violated its sovereignty by intruding into nine-dash territory within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. 

Tensions are particularly high over a series of uninhabited islands in the middle of the sea that possess rich natural resources and fishing areas, which are claimed by multiple countries.

The Spratly Islands, near the Philippines, are the most contentious. The Japan Times reports that Beijing “has already set up an interconnected array of radar, electronic-attack facilities, missile batteries and airfields” on the archipelago.

China has also created 3,200 acres of new land in the islands since 2013 using reclamation methods, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“China’s strategy poses a serious challenge to its neighbours, which face a deepening dilemma over how to deal with its creeping aggression,” The Japan Times adds.

The Chinese are thought to have found an ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly sanctioned joint naval exercises between the two countries. Russia has also offered rhetorical support for China's position on its sovereignty claims.

Bonded by a common rivalry with the US, Moscow and Beijing have forged what they describe as a “strategic partnership”, expressing their shared opposition to the “unipolar” world - “a term they use to describe perceived US global dominance”, says the Associated Press.

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