Rising Tensions in Asia; China’s Economic Expansion Muddies Waters In The South China Sea Map

South China Sea Map Cause For Tensions.

Cover of Asia's Cauldron by R.D. Kaplan
Cover of Asia’s Cauldron by R.D. Kaplan

While most of the West was focused on the conflicts in the Middle East, Robert D. Kaplan’s 2014 book was already focused on the rising tensions and conflicts in the South China Sea. China continues to expand economically at about twice the speed of the rest of the world. So too, will China expand geographically.

While China successfully claims Hong Kong, Tibet and, for now, less effectively claims Taiwan as part of its territory, it will not expand anymore on land. (Except, perhaps, an annexation of North Korea.) Instead, China is set to expand its territory by successfully claiming disputed international waters.

South China Sea Map

Map Of Territorial Claims In The South China Sea - South China Sea Map
Map Of Territorial Claims In The South China Sea

Parts of the South China Sea are claimed by different countries. These claims are based on tiny, uninhabited islands that are scattered around the sea, and which are claimed as land by various Pacific countries. If they can successfully claim the land on these islands, then the waters around the islands automatically belongs to the country, too. And although the islands are not very useful, control over the waters in the South China Sea is of both economic and strategic value.

Two Reasons Why Countries Want to Claim the South China Sea

There are two main reasons why countries want to claim a part of the South China Sea. The first sounds familiar in a bad way: oil. The waters are believed to contain vast oil reserves that each country would like to use for themselves or sell. Most Pacific countries (except for a few like Brunei) are big importers of oil, and oil is still a relatively big part of these emerging economies. Luckily there are no civilians living on top of these oil fields, so conflict over these riches are less likely to result in large numbers of casualties.

The second reason that countries want to dominate the Pacific seas is geo-strategic. The South China Sea contains trade routes that are blood vessels of the world economy. Control over the South China Sea means control over export and trade in the region and the world. Trade is, of course, a major part of the Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Filipino economies. In case of conflict, control over the sea would mean that one country can implement an effective blockade of another country, grinding that country’s economy to a halt. For some countries, this blockade can be circumvented by shipping around the blocked sea, but this would come at a tremendous cost and arrive as a shock. The major countries in the region couldn’t even get enough oil to continue their activities if their access to the sea were compromised. And while the Filipino economy is relatively small, if China’s sea lines were to be cut off even for one week, this would greatly affect the world economy. The South China Sea, in other words, gives great leverage over other countries if it were dominated by a single superpower.

At the moment, the U.S. secures the sea lines, supposedly to secure global trade for all countries. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the book, this ‘security’ the the U.S. provides also means that the U.S. has leverage over China, in the sense that they could blockade the country. Such a threat is unacceptable to any superpower, including China.

Musical Chairs in the Pacific

Currently, the U.S. Navy (and its allied proxies, mainly Taiwan and Vietnam) are the great superpower in the South China Sea. But for the past two decades, the U.S. has been focused on the Middle East and, in effect, is slowly retreating from the Pacific region. To be clear, the U.S. is still the major superpower in the pacific at the moment, but this is changing. Robert Kaplan’s book suggests that China will end up dominating the South China Sea over Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the U.S. and other Western allies. This is because the other states in the region will remain weaker than China, and because China is necessarily present in the region, while the US is only there optionally. This means that the U.S. can and eventually will retreat from the region as China rises on the world stage.

Understanding More About the Tensions in the South China Sea

All countries in the Pacific region have their own distinct history and relationships with each other and the West. To understand more about this conflict, the tensions in the region, and to get an idea of how this conflict might develop further, I recommend reading Robert Kaplans’ book: Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.

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