South China Sea: Overlapping Claims

Take a look at the map of the overlapping claims in the South China Sea.  Why should we pay attention?


For one, close to 30% of all of the world’s trade goes through it.  Most are aware of the importance of the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, Gibraltar, and the Strait of Hormuz; however, not so many know about the strategic location of the Strait of Malacca which helps make Singapore a wealthy city state.

Secondly, it is the second most important choke point for the transport of oil, the first being the Strait of Hormuz; yet, it is first for two thirds of internationally traded LNG (liquified natural gas).  This Strait is VITAL for Japan, Korea, AND China as so much of their energy comes via that route.  It is the shortest sea route between Persian Gulf suppliers and key Asian markets. China has astoundingly built islands from scratch from the ocean floor with facilities such as air fields and port facilities potentially to control the sea routes.

Third, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that the South China Sea holds about 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves, most of which lie along the margins of the South China Sea rather than under disputed islets and reefs.  See the map provided to see the locations of the artificially made Paracel Islands and the Spratley Islands. An old principle of real estate ownership applies here: location, location, location. How does their location impact the region’s trade?

All of this highlights how important it is to have dominant sea power located there, thanks to the dictums set down by Alfred T. Mahan so many years ago. Thus far, that sea power is in the hands of the U.S. Navy though China is enhancing their’s with the apparent goal of surpassing the U.S. Navy in that region. China is not yet committed to building a world wide high seas navy, only to have a navy to protect their interests in the South China Sea and Djibouti in the Middle East.

Artificial Islands in the South China Sea (from Wikipedia)

Actually, as the second map discloses, some claims have been solved.  It is the rest that are problematic. In 2016, a South China Sea arbitration tribunal of the Hague attempted to resolve China’s claims to resources and ruled that their claims were incompatible with the UN Convention on the Sea’s ruling of that region’s high seas open to all.    China has yet to accept the results. How that is to be resolved is still unclear.

Finally, the Strait of Malacca IS essential for China’s Belt and Road Initiative to be carried out.  Will China attempt to control it?  And, if so, what can be done about that?  China may intend to control the South China Sea; but, the Strait of Malacca is probably out of its reach for some time.  At the very least, we can expect growing tensions within the South China Sea between the various nations, especially China, laying claim to substantial portions of it. 

It is a potential flash point. What do you think can be done about their claims?