Why the Spratly Islands Dispute Matters

Starting in 2013, China began a concerted effort to establish large, artificial islands throughout the Spratly Island archipelago in the South China Sea (China claims the entire sea and archipelago). The undeniable purpose of such efforts is for China to control the archipelago, and therefore control the unquestionably important region.

The problem with the People’s Republic of China laying claim to the entire region is that five other nations (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam) also lay claim to certain areas of the Spratly Islands, making one of the world’s most heavily militarized regions even more volatile.

In addition to the above-named countries, any potential conflict in Southeast Asia could eventually draw in the United States to protect its interests and allies.

Most importantly, the United States and the Philippines have at least three treaties that would lead to a defense of the latter by China. The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement all oblige the U.S. to oppose any aggression to its ally, the Philippines. The two nations remain close partners in the War on Terror, as Washington has sent thousands of troops and other resources to combat the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines.

The United States also maintains close relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan). China could very well use the Spratly Islands disagreement as a pretext to end the decades-long dispute with the island nation. Once again, the United States may very well be involved in a conflict between Taiwan and China, given the level of ‘strategic ambiguity’ with regards to mutual defense in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Strangely enough, China’s assertiveness in the region has led Vietnam to look to the United States as a potential partner to counter Beijing’s power and land grab. India is also involved in the dispute, stationing naval units in Vietnamese waters, acting as a counterweight to Chinese aggression. Indian companies are also currently drilling for oil in the territorial waters of Vietnam.                 

Now, you may ask, “Why should I care?" Look at any item or article of clothing you have in your home. The tag or sticker will oftentimes say, ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in Taiwan’, ‘Made in Vietnam’, etc. Simply put, most people around the world would potentially feel the impact of a major conflict in the area brought on by the Spratly Island dispute.

The South China Sea is a major transit point for maritime trade and shipping. According to Robert Kaplan, two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, sixty percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s, and eighty percent of China’s crude oil imports sail through the South China Sea.

In fact, the amount of oil passing through the South China Sea, via the Malacca Strait, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.

In addition to the amount of energy supplies transiting the region, the South China Sea witnesses the flow of one-third all maritime traffic in the world, involving nearly fifty percent of the world’s merchant fleet. Trillions of dollars worth of goods flow through the region, making any potential conflict over the Spratly Islands devastating to the world economy, including worldwide stock markets and consumer prices. That would affect everyone reading this article.

China, and the rest of the region, is interested in the Spratly Islands not only because it allows the controlling nation to regulate the trade of oil and other goods, but it can lead to control of the exploration of oil and natural gas in the South China Sea.

According to the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company, the South China Sea region, including the Spratly Islands, holds 125 billion gallons of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of gas. The U.S. Geological Survey disputes these number, instead estimating that the region holds 5 to 22 billion barrels of oil and 70 to 290 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The fishing industry is extremely important to the region and especially China, given the size of its population. The South China Sea accounts for about twelve percent of the worldwide seafood catch. Since the Chinese coastline is seriously polluted, the Chinese government heavily subsidizes the Chinese fishing fleet, and especially encourages the fishing fleet to sail to the Spratly Islands. In fact, according to Adam Minter, China is responsible for about half of the total catch in the South China Sea which is estimated to be worth $21 billion

China has answered concerns about the overfishing in the South China Sea with an annual ban that lasts from May to August and supposedly applies to all regional nations. Vietnam, among others, has violated the ‘ban’, suggesting the ‘ban’ violates the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea.

The dispute over the Spratly Islands and the greater South China Sea has the potential to escalate into a regional conflict between any number of nations. The importance of the region to the world economy and the stationing of United States military forces in the area, might lead to a concerted effort to prevent military confrontation.

At the end of October 2015, the United States Navy sailed the U.S.S. Lassen within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef, which is claimed by China. The move was widely denounced by Chinese state media as proactive and “damaged regional peace and stability”. The United States showed that it would not stand for China’s aggressive moves, moves opposed by numerous nations.

Add instability on the Korean Peninsula, the massive militaries possessed by many Asian nations (plus the United States), and the increasing nationalistic behavior of economically distressed China, and the threat of war, or proxy war, between the United States and China and their respective allies is a real possibility.

It is a conflict that will affect all of us. It will cost all of us, in lives, wealth, comfort, and peace. 

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