Winds of war swirl above the South China Sea

Along with Taiwan, it has become a flashpoint for Beijing and Washington in the battle for global supremacy

The United States is about to blow up a fake warship in the South China Sea – but the naval rivalry with Beijing is real and growing.

As part of a joint military exercise with the Philippines, the US Navy is slated to sink a mock warship next week. The live-fire drill is not a response to increased tensions with China over Taiwan, Washington and Manila have stressed.

But either way, Beijing isn’t happy, responding by holding its own staged military event involving actual warships and fighter jets deployed around Taiwan, a self-governed island that China claims as its own.

The tit-for-tat war games underscore a reality that American presidents have increasingly had to contend with as the 21st century has drawn on.

More than a century after President Theodore Roosevelt made the US the preeminent maritime power in the Pacific, that position is under threat. China is seeking to displace it.

As a scholar of East Asian security and maritime disputes, I believe that the growing rivalry between the US and China over the dominance of the Pacific has the potential to define geopolitics in the region for the next half-century.

Already, ongoing maritime disputes pit China against several Asian countries. For example, Beijing regularly challenges the maritime rights of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in the South China Sea and Japan in the East China Sea.

Major theater

But the disputed waters are also of huge strategic importance to the US. It is where China is flexing its growing military might in the face of American allies and partners, notably Taiwan, which Washington has committed to defend.

If a war between China and the US is going to happen, I believe the South China Sea is likely to be a major theater, with Beijing’s aggression toward Taiwan the spark.

For centuries, the dozens of islands, shoals, reefs, banks, and rocks in the crucial trade waterway were regarded as little more than hazards to navigation.

But with the discovery of large reserves of oil and gas in the 1970s and billions of dollars worth of fisheries, the previously largely ignored sea has gained significant attention from the countries whose shorelines meet it.

It led to a revival of elapsed conflicting claims of “ownership” over the sea. China claims legal rights to the vast majority of the South China Sea, extending well beyond the boundaries established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

Chinese bases on an artificial island in the South China Sea. Photo: File

This claim by China, designated on maps by a nine-dash line, overlaps with the legally recognized maritime rights of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.

During the past decade, Beijing has consistently engaged in low-level coercive activities called “gray zone tactics,” such as the small-scale deployment of the Chinese Coast Guard in disputed waters and the manning of fishing vessels with civilians trained by the military.

The purpose is to harass others and assert Beijing’s maritime rights outside legal Chinese waters, as recognized under UNCLOS.

Since 2013, China has also developed several reefs and shoals into artificial islands, building military bases with runways, radar technology, and missile-launching capabilities.

In 2016, a UNCLOS Annex VII arbitration panel ruled that China’s nine-dash line claims were illegal and rejected Beijing’s rights to maritime features in the legal waters of the Philippines.

But despite the legally binding nature of the ruling, China has continued to militarize its artificial islands and harass neighboring countries’ military and fishing vessels. It has also denied passage to US Navy ships legally sailing through waters in the South China Sea.

Power politics

Successive Washington administrations have aired concern over the developments. In 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a US position on the South China Sea, rejecting China’s maritime claims and its “bullying” tactics as “unlawful.”

A year later, his successor, Antony Blinken, declared:

Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea.

But why does it matter so much to the US? The answer lies in economics and power politics. About one-third of the world’s shipping transits the South China Sea.

In all, more than US$3.4 trillion worth of products – everything from rubber ducks to cars – are transported through its waters every year.

The sea connects the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, allowing trade from East Asian states to flow to and from billions of people in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

It is also where 14% of all US maritime trade passes through. It is a crucial route for outgoing American goods as well as getting products to the US. Without it, the transport of products we use every day would slow down, and these products would cost more.

American carrier groups have been operating in the South China Sea. Photo: File

And then there are oil and gas. Around 30% of all global crude oil transits through the South China Sea. Furthermore, there is an estimated $11 billion worth of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of proven deposits of natural gas in the sea, as well as undiscovered oil and gas.

Meanwhile, more than half of all fishing vessels in the world operate in the South China Sea.

For economic reasons alone, the US and the rest of the world need open trade routes and sea lanes. Preventing one country – especially a hostile China – from controlling these routes and resources is a crucial policy concern for Washington.

Although economics plays a part, China’s actions are part of a much broader aggressive campaign. Beijing views territorial and maritime control in the region through the lens of its national security. It seeks to project its power and defend the Chinese mainland.

Ultimately, as acknowledged by Washington, China is looking to overturn the status quo, replacing the US as the superpower. This battle is already taking shape in the South China Sea, with regular confrontations between US naval vessels and Chinese maritime militia and navy.

The artificial islands in the South China Sea provide Beijing with military capabilities far beyond the mainland alone. These outposts can be used to help counter and fight the US and its allies, for example, in a war over Taiwan.

Naval exercises

While the US is not itself a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, the waters there remain a significant priority for the national security interests of Washington, too.

It is why the US and its allies conduct freedom of navigation missions and engage in naval exercises such as the one taking place with the Philippines.

With Beijing playing by a different set of rules than Washington and its partners in the region, the risk of clashes at sea is very real. It could even lead to conflict between the two most powerful countries in the world today.

The next time a warship is blown up in the South China Sea, I fear that it may not be just a drill.

Krista Wiegand is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee in the US.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.