The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.—China Strategic Rivalry
The risk of conflict escalating from relatively minor events has increased in the South China Sea over the past two years with disputes now less open to negotiation or resolution. Originally, the disputes arose after World War II when the littoral states—China and three countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, as well as Vietnam which joined later—scrambled to occupy the islands there. Had the issue remained strictly a territorial one, it could have been resolved through Chinese efforts to reach out to ASEAN and forge stronger ties with the region. Around the 1990s, access to the sea’s oil and gas reserves as well as fishing and ocean resources began to complicate the claims. As global energy demand has risen, claimants have devised plans to exploit the sea’s hydrocarbon reserves with disputes not surprisingly ensuing, particularly between China and Vietnam. Nevertheless, these energy disputes need not result in conflict, as they have been and could continue to be managed through joint or multilateral development regimes, for which there are various precedents although none as complicated as the South China Sea. Now, however, the issue has gone beyond territorial claims and access to energy resources, as the South China Sea has become a focal point for the U.S.–China rivalry in the Western Pacific. Since around 2010, the sea has started to become linked with wider strategic issues relating to China’s naval strategy and America’s forward presence in the area. This makes the dispute dangerous and a reason for concern, particularly as the United States has reaffirmed its interest in the Asia Pacific and strengthened security relations with the ASEAN claimants in the dispute.