The South China Sea: From Bad to Worse

TOKYO – Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are about to get a whole lot worse — and at the worst possible time.

Whether the U.S. can avoid being dragged into a shooting match will depend on how far Beijing and its unruly mix of military, maritime and natural resources agencies choose to push their claims. And whether China’s increasingly frustrated neighbors decide to push back.

Last week’s regional security talks in Cambodia were a step in the wrong direction. China refused to look at a written code of conduct being drafted to govern navigation, resources and related issues in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways. It also blocked discussion – let alone resolution — of the conflicting territorial claims in the region.

China claims exclusive rights to virtually all of the South China Sea, including its vast reserves of oil, gas and ocean resources; four other countries and Taiwan claim large parts of the region, as well. The disputes have led to increasingly tense standoffs between China and its neighbors.

The weeklong security talks, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), dissolved amid charges of Chinese bullying, without even a customary closing statement. China made its point, but it may be a short-lived victory, says Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based maritime policy analyst and senior associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco.

“What China is saying is, ‘We have this historic claim to the South China Sea and we own everything within it – islands, reefs, submerged areas, resources, you name it. That’s the way it is, and we’re not even going to talk to you about it.’ But they’ve painted themselves into a corner now, and that’s very dangerous for everybody,” says Valencia.

So far, the U.S. has stayed out of the territorial disputes. That’s wise. The U.S. cannot referee the welter of legal, historical and emotional arguments that accompany each dispute (all or parts of the Spratly Islands, for example, are claimed not only by China, but also by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, with evidence and documentation of varying degrees of credibility and relevance, dating back hundreds of years in some cases).

The primary U.S. interest in the region is in ensuring freedom of navigation. Half the world’s commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea — $5 trillion a year — and U.S. warships regularly transit the region on their way to and from the Persian Gulf, Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean.

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