BY ABRAHAM M. DENMARK
For the last two years, a quiet showdown has played out over the South China Sea, the body of water bordered by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. This little-known body of water is of vast strategic importance: Fully one-third of the world's maritime trade traverses the South China Sea, and some optimistic estimates of its untapped stores of oil and natural gas would make it a second Persian Gulf. The South China Sea is also a major highway linking the oil fields of the Middle East and the factories of East Asia, with more than 80 percent of China's oil imports (and large percentages for Japan and South Korea as well) flowing over its waters. As influential Asia-watcher Robert D. Kaplan has put it, the South China Sea's importance to the region makes it the "Asian Mediterranean."
Due to these waters' importance, several countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam -- claim sovereignty over part of these waters. Yet China claims rights of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, as detailed in the "9-dash line" included in its submission to the United Nations. While tension in these waters has waxed and waned for several decades, recent years have seen an uptick in tensions. Starting in 2009, two discernable rounds of geopolitical intrigue can be identified, and last week likely marked the beginning of round three.
The first round began in March 2009, when Chinese fishing vessels harassed the U.S. surveillance ship Impeccable in international waters, 75 miles off the coast of China's Hainan Island. Three months later, a Chinese submarine collided (apparently accidentally) with the towed sonar array of the USS John S. McCain near Subic Bay off the coast of the Philippines. Other aggressive moves followed, including reports that Beijing had declared the South China Sea to be a "core interest," putting it on par with Taiwan and Xinjiang as fundamental strategic priorities. China's assertiveness was noted around the world and caused a strong reaction.
Round two. In July 2010, the United States and much of Southeast Asia pushed back. At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Hanoi, 12 Southeast Asian countries complained of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared freedom of navigation within the South China Sea to be a national interest of the United States. China initially reacted harshly to this pushback, with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly declaring Clinton's remarks in Hanoi to be "an attack on China" and not so subtly reminding his Singaporean counterpart that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact." A subsequent statement by the Chinese military reiterated China's "indisputable sovereignty" over 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea -- which much of Southeast Asia naturally disputed.Read more.