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Chinese naval officials stand in front of the ship Daqing, San Diego, Calif., Dec. 7, 2016 (AP photo by Gregory Bull).

The South China Sea Dispute Takes On New Urgency

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The danger of territorial disputes in the South China Sea is growing as China’s navy expands rapidly and the U.S. response wavers. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

With China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea undermining the popular narrative of its peaceful rise, many experts correctly point to the dual tides of nationalism and militarization as drivers of hostile behavior. But leaning too heavily on these explanations conceals a third factor behind the South China Sea conflict: Beijing’s burgeoning demand for energy.

Already the world’s largest energy consumer, China will only need more in the coming years to maintain sustained urbanization and industrialization. As more people move into cities and China’s economic output rapidly expands, its energy consumption will increase by nearly 50 percent through 2035, accounting for a quarter of all global consumption.

China is eyeing unfettered access to the South China Sea to meet all this demand. Currently, 86 percent of China’s maritime oil imports, as well as more than half of its maritime gas, pass through the South China Sea. Moreover, the South China Sea itself reportedly holds 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of gas. By claiming islands in the South China Sea as sovereign territory, China establishes its right to all oil and gas resources there.

To find out more about the drivers of the South China Sea conflict, read Energy Demands Increasingly Shape China’s Behavior in the South China Sea for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

South China Sea Dispute Solutions Bring New Allies Together

For the United States and other countries who fear a hegemonic China in the region, the dark cloud of potential conflict in the South China Sea could have a silver lining. China’s assertive approach to its South China Sea territorial disputes is one driver of the remarkable progress made in security ties between the United States and Vietnam over the past decade. The shift exemplifies Hanoi’s multidirectional foreign policy, which rests on maintaining strong relations with many outside partners to avoid dominance by any one. That strategy is evolving to face the growing threat Vietnam perceives from its northern neighbor, China. For Hanoi, the United States plays an increasingly significant role in potential South China Sea dispute solutions.

To learn more about Vietnam’s strategy in keeping the South China Sea conflict from escalating, read Vietnam Looks for Help in Standing Up to Beijing in the South China Sea for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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The False Hope of a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct

In August 2017, following a foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines, China and its Southeast Asian neighbors announced that they had agreed on a framework, or broad outline, for negotiating a code of conduct in the contested South China Sea. In theory, a code of conduct, or a set of accepted norms, could set guidelines on activities allowed in the sea, including militarization and land reclamation. Though it would do nothing to resolve territorial disputes, Philippine and Chinese leaders touted the adoption of a framework as a step toward reducing tensions in the South China Sea. The development seems, on the surface, like significant progress. But despite the agreement on a framework, it will be almost impossible for Beijing to get ASEAN nations to agree to an actual code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Will a China-ASEAN code of conduct really make a difference in the South China Sea? To learn more, read The ASEAN-China Breakthrough in the South China Sea That Wasn’t for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

The Global Implications of the South China Sea Standoff

After an initial period of uncertainty over the Trump administration’s approach to the South China Sea, the White House has recently sought more international participation to counter Beijing’s growing control over the strategic waterway. It is a rare call for multilateralism from an American administration that has repeatedly opted to go it alone on the world stage. In January, the United States and the United Kingdom conducted joint naval exercises in the South China Sea, their first such drills in the area since 2010. Washington has also held exercises with Japan and other regional allies in recent months. The U.S.-British joint operations were intended to push back on China’s assertive behavior in the region, including its militarization of nearby artificial islands, but also “to show that the South China Sea issue is not just a bilateral contest between America and China,” says Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, in an email interview. Rather, it is “a wider issue which engages the key interests of all countries that support and benefit from the U.S.-led order in Asia, and by extension globally, which China is challenging by its assertive conduct.”

Where does the standoff over the South China Sea fit into the broader struggle for primacy between the U.S. and China? To learn more, read Brinkmanship in South China Sea Highlights Larger Struggle for Military Primacy for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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Editor's Note: This article was first published in September 2018 and is regularly updated.