Heading for War in the South China Sea

Why is the South China Sea being fought over by many countries? The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that one-third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea (SCS) region. In 2016, international trade in the SCS was estimated to be worth $ 3.37 trillion, while export activities through the SCS contributed about $ 874 billion in revenue to the China’s economy. The SCS connects Asia with Africa and Europe so it is very strategic for the economic resilience of China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. These countries also depend heavily on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean (China Power, 2016).

SCS also stores abundant of seafood, crude oil to natural gas. This vast ocean contains about 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, reserves of around 11 billion barrels of oil, and large potentials of other undiscovered natural resources. At present, six countries are working on oil and gas licensing blocks in the SCS. These countries are China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and there is one block that is worked on by several countries (AMTI CSIS, 2020).

China claims 80 percent of the SCS region but is strongly opposed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, and Taiwan. One of the leading battle claims over the SCS is the dispute between the Philippines and China over the basis of maritime law, the issue of sovereignty, the status of certain geographical features, and the validity of actions taken by China on the SCS. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tests the accuracy of Philippine and China claims by requesting written submissions from the Philippines, appointing independent experts to investigate technical issues and obtaining historical evidence of features in SCS. The results of the investigation were submitted to the PCA to be tested, commented on, and became the basis for decision making.

The five PCA decisions are: first, China’s claims to all territories in the nine-dashed lines based on ‘historical rights’ in the SCS are considered illegal. PCA reasoned that ‘historical rights’ were not defined in international law. Beijing has not yet accepted the PCA ruling and is trying to assert its sovereignty through diplomacy to unilateral coercion. Second, the PCA ruled that all tide features on the Spratly Islands (including Itu Aba, Thitu, West York Island, Spratly Island, North-East Cay, South-West Cay) are “rocks” and humans can’t live there, so doesn’t support sustainable economic activity. Historical records describe some fishing groups from China, Japan, and other countries catching various types of fish and guano (bat dirt) in the Spratly Islands in the 1920s and 1930s. These facts explain that there’s no permanent human community, and fishermen use the features there to carry out extractive economic activities (extracting and processing natural resources directly). Therefore, the area cannot be categorized as an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Third, the PCA opposes land reclamation activities carried out by China because it is proven to damage the coral reef environment. Fourth, the PCA stated that China had violated Philippine sovereignty rights after capturing Scarborough Shoal in the 2012 incident. Scarborough Shoal is an empty area with rock topography in the west of Luzon Island. China hasn’t built any structures there, but the Chinese coast guard has been guarding it closely since 2012. Fifth, the PCA considers Philippine requests that China must respect Philippine rights and freedoms, and abide by the results of the convention. The PCA considers the root of the dispute to be differences in understanding of the basic rights of each country, not the intention of China or the Philippines to violate the legal rights of others (Permanent Court of Arbitration, 2016; Vietnam Times, 2020). China refused to attend court and strongly rejected the decision of the international arbitration court in The Hague (Foreign Policy, 2020).

United States of America (U.S.) and Allied Facilities in the South China Sea and Pacific

Guam Island in the West of the North Pacific

The 38,000-hectare Guam Navy Base is responsible for managing all U.S. Navy properties in the Pacific, including supporting the fleet forces and their families. The Andersen Air Force Base that hosts the Twenty-Five Naval Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HSC-25) is located on the northern island, and the Guam Naval Base (NBG) is located on the southern island. NBG hosts the Commander, the Fifteen Submarine Squadron (CSS-15), USS Frank Cable, Guam Naval Hospital, Coastal Riverine Group 1, and the Guam Coast Guard Sector. The U.S. fleet requires three to five hours of flight to ports and airstrips in Japan, China, the Philippines, and Singapore.

© 2020 TetraMetrics, Map Data © Google

Gulf of Subic in the Philippines

The Subic facility, which is as large as Singapore, was once one of the largest U.S. Navy facilities in the world. In 1992, the facility was closed after the Philippine Senate decided to end the base agreement with Washington. The Philippine government then developed the area into a tourism area and a special economic zone (Chandran, 2019). The internal government of the Philippines is not always unified concerning the SCS issue. The Philippine Navy blocked the efforts of several Chinese companies who wanted to lease three islands in the Philippines in April 2019, even though President Rodrigo Duterte had given the green light. Philippine Navy Chief Giovanni Bacordo said he prefers to work with close allies (the U.S. and his allies) to take over Subic because he considers national security. On May 10, 2020, the Philippine Navy Chief stated that the U.S. Navy plans to return to Subic under a commercial agreement after a U.S. equity firm and a shipbuilder from Australia expressed interest in taking over the Subic shipyard from Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, the South Korea company that has gone bankrupt (One News, 2020).

© 2020 TetraMetrics, Map Data © Google (kiri dan tengah), © Gerald Patrick Hapitan, September 2018 (kanan)


Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam

Vietnam Defense White Paper published in 1998, 2004, 2009, 2012 emphasizes open, diversified, and multilateralization policies in international relations. Vietnam wants to live peacefully side by side with other countries by emphasizing anti-confrontation and anti-offensive attitudes, not joining any military alliance, not engaging in military operations that threaten peace, not allowing other countries to establish military bases, and closing their territory to military activities against other countries. Vietnam prefers defense cooperation with other countries to protect the country and overcome security challenges together.

The Vietnamese government dramatically changed its policy by reopening commercial repair facilities for all navies in the world in 2009. The U.S. repaired USNS Safeguard in the port of Saigon in September 2009, USNS Richard E. Byrd at Van Phong Bay in February to March 2010. Facilities at Cam Ranh Bay are divided into military ports and civilian facilities. Several U.S. fleets that have been repaired are USNS Richard E. Byrd from August 2011 to June 2012, USNS Walter S. Diehl in October 2011, and USNS Rappahannock in February 2012.

As the situation continued to change, Vietnam was involved in some conflicts with China over the issue of sovereignty, maritime disputes, and oil and gas exploration in the SCS. The Defense White Paper 2019 seemed to provide clues that the government might consider changing its foreign and defense policies. One paragraph states that depending on certain circumstances, Vietnam will consider developing defense and military relations with other countries. Will Vietnam lease Cam Ranh to the U.S.? (Thayer, 2020).

© 2020 TetraMetrics, Map Data © Google (kiri dan tengah), © CTY QUẢNG CÁO -XD NỘI NGOẠI THẤT MẶC VI, Agustus 2019 (kanan)

Chinese Facilities in the South China Sea

China has carried out massive dredging to build 3,200 hectares of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and expand to the Paracel Islands since 2013. In total, China has established 20 posts on the Paracel Islands and 7 posts on the Spratly Islands and has controlled Scarborough Shoal since 2012.

Spratly Islands


Paracel Islands

Scarborough Shoal

© Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative – China Island Tracker

Recent Overview of Mainland China and Taiwan Relations

Taiwan or the Republic of China, located off China’s southern coast, has been governed independently since 1949. The Kuomintang Party (KMT) implemented martial law until 1987 and pressed hard on any political dissent. The KMT and its coalition partners have historically viewed Taiwan as part of one China and don’t support the island’s independence, mainland China consistently claims Taiwan as a province.

Time has changed Taiwan’s political world to be more democratic and open. Taiwan held its first legislative elections in 1992 and presidential elections in 1996. The KMT’s main competitor, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was founded in 1986 and passed in 1989, calls for Taiwan independence and promotes Taiwan’s unique identity. The relationship between mainland China and Taiwan enters a new chapter at the time when Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen emphasize disparate missions and visions. Nationalist Xi Jinping was elected mainland China’s new leader in 2012. Xi’s government has taken a harsher stance on Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, which often demand independence. Tsai Ing-wen is the politician from the DPP who won the Taiwan Presidential Election in 2016 and 2020. She didn’t always comply with Beijing’s wishes as stated in the Consensus of 1992. Beijing views Taiwan’s stance as insubordination, leaving Beijing-Taipei relations unstable and prone to open conflict.

The Consensus of 1992 aimed to maintain the stability of cross-strait relations. However, each party has different definitions and interpretations of the contents, causing the pros and cons to this day. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers mainland China and Taiwan to be one China under one country, two systems framework. Taiwan meanwhile argues that one China refers to the Republic of China.

About 23 million Taiwanese are aware that the conflict between the U.S. and mainland China will affect their future. A Pew Research Center research result shows 68 percent of Taiwanese prefer the U.S., while 35 percent prefer mainland China. 85 percent support closer economic ties with the U.S., while 52 percent choose mainland China as a business partner. 79 percent expect Taiwan to improve political ties with Washington, while 36 percent emphasize stable political relations with mainland China (The Diplomat, 2018; Pew Research Center, 2019; CFR, 2020).

Tension in SCS continued to peak precisely during the Covid-19 pandemic. On 18 May 2020, Raja Al-Sultan Abdullah Re’Ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah of the Malaysian monarchy, who was known to be not interested in politics, expressed an unusual opinion in parliament. He stated that increasing the activity of major powers in the SCS needed special attention (Channel News Asia, 2020).

On 13 July 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that the United States’ position was in line with the 2016 PCA decision in The Hague. The U.S. claims to try to maintain peace and stability, uphold freedom at sea, maintain trade flows without barriers, oppose any coercion or force to resolve disputes. The U.S. and its partners consistently support a rules-based international order (Pompeo, 2020).

If the U.S. attacks China-controlled islands and corals in the SCS, China will respond to military provocation with an all-out war. International relations experts from China stated that the chances of military conflict in the next three months depend very much on the attitude of the White House and what China will do to prevent war (Global Times, 2020).

At present, two different camps pushed Trump to make the final decision. The moderate camp has warned Trump against the urge to punish China. Hardliners have pushed Trump to sanction and demand compensation from China for allegedly hiding information about the Covid-19 virus. Senior advisers assume a tough stance will increase the chances of Trump winning the U.S. Presidential Election in November 2020 (Washington Post, 2020).

My notes

Strategic position and abundant natural resources triggered competition and long conflicts that are very complex. SCS is one of the battles of influence and power between the U.S. and China who want to control this region. The U.S. strives to maintain its hegemony, while China shows its ambition to become the world’s major superpower economically, politically, and militarily. Anyone who successfully conquers this region will enjoy power and prosperity in the long run. The U.S. and Taiwan’s growing closeness even without formal diplomatic ties have angered Beijing and led to opportunities for war in the South China Sea. Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.


A bankruptcy in the Philippines sparks concerns of Chinese firms taking over a former US naval base.

As China ‘will definitely retaliate’ military provocation, experts warn US not to escalate tensions. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1195968.shtml

China-Taiwan Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-taiwan-relations

How much trade transits the South China Sea?

In Taiwan, Views of Mainland China Mostly Negative. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/05/12/in-taiwan-views-of-mainland-china-mostly-negative/

Joint Region Marianas – Naval Base Guam In-depth Overview.

Malaysia needs to pay attention to increased activities by big powers in the South China Sea: King. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/malaysia-king-south-china-sea-pay-attention-parliament-12744852

PCA Ruling: China’s claims of nine dashed line in the South China Sea is illegal.

PCA Press Release: The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China). https://pca-cpa.org/en/news/pca-press-release-the-south-china-sea-arbitration-the-republic-of-the-philippines-v-the-peoples-republic-of-china/

Pompeo Draws a Line Against Beijing in the South China Sea.

Robin Beres column: Navy’s return to Subic Bay sends a message to China.

US pushes back on China in South China Sea.

US Navy Eyes Return To Subic Bay In A Commercial Deal.

U.S. officials crafting retaliatory actions against China over coronavirus as President Trump fumes. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/30/trump-china-coronavirus-retaliation/

U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea.

What Does the 1992 Consensus Mean to Citizens in Taiwan? https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/what-does-the-1992-consensus-mean-to-citizens-in-taiwan/

Will Vietnam Lease Cam Ranh Bay to the United States?

Photo: Unsplash/Alexander Jawfox

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