Back in January 2015, China started its airstrip construction at ‘Fiery Cross Reef’, which is part of land reclamation efforts started by the Chinese government in 2014. These land reclamation projects are conducted on reefs and atolls in the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea. New harbors are raised and huge cranes have been erected to build artificial island atop submerged reefs. The problem is that the island chains are also claimed by Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. Although there are hundred of islands in the 1.4 million square miles of South China Sea, the largest and most disputative territories include the Spartly islands. Since many of these islands are uninhabited or have ever been populated by indigenous people, the six nations around the Sea aren’t able to resolve the issue, by at least claiming historical sovereignty.
The maritime disputes are also not restricted to island and atolls. The entire region is home to a wealth of fisheries, trade routes and other significant natural resources, which could be stake, considering the frequent diplomatic standoffs in the recent times. And, as always US has great interests in the area and protested from the start that the construction works are illegal. Pentagon has been demanding Washington to take a more firm stance. In fact, US had been conducting regular missions in the area from 2014 with its most advanced submarine and surveillance air crafts. Experts are of the opinion that there would be no escalated conflict regarding the territorial disputes in South China Sea, but the ongoing crisis may gradually swing the American stance.
In October 2015, Beijing witnessed a setback as an arbitration court in The Hague stated that it has jurisdiction to hear territorial claims Philippines has filed against China over South China Sea dispute. Although China has boycotted the whole proceedings, from a legal perspective, China seems to have weak standing. By November 2015, US responded to the dispute by sending its two B-52 bombers from Guam around the Spratly Islands. Chinese Defense Ministry accused US of causing a serious military provocation.
The significant of the resources in South China Sea (as per World Bank) is proven oil reserves of at least 7 billion barrels and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which might offer great economic opportunities for smaller countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines. In December 2012, China announced that in the disputed waters, its energy companies are going to start deep drilling for natural gas production. There were also small-time maritime confrontations between fishing vessels of China and other nations. Nearly 1.5 billion people living around the area rely heavily on fisheries for food as well as jobs. So, the escalation of the conflict would lead to large socioeconomic problems for the small nations.
The South China Sea dispute also said to affect the trade routes, since this part sees three times more tanker traffic than the Suez Canal and more than five times that of the Panama Canal. Of the top ten shipping ports in the world, half are situated in and around South China Sea. And so the from trade perspective, the issue also concerns Japan, US and even European Union.
On January 30, 2016, US’ guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, claimed by China and two other nations. China immediately called US’ actions as extremely dangerous and irresponsible. In the last week, Taiwan claims that China has placed antiaircraft missiles on few of the island chains. On Feb. 23rd, Chinese Foreign Minister and US Secretary of State met for talks as each nation continuing to accuse the other of escalating military tensions. Nevertheless, the priority for both nations, for now, is to avoid military conflicts, since China has become largest trading partner of US and one of the biggest investors among all the Southeast Asian countries. US forceful role to conquer what is called as ‘Chinese assertiveness’ would bring far more serious consequences.