Deteriorating US-China Relations And The Battle For The South China Sea

On March 6, 2017, North Korea tested its ballistic missiles, continuing with the expansion of its nuclear program and disregarding the Trump administration’s threat to undertake military action if Pyongyang does not comply with international laws regarding nuclear proliferation. A US naval carrier was recently dispatched to establish a presence in the South China Sea to monitor the situation. While China urges the US to pursue a peaceful resolution with North Korea, tensions have been growing between the two nations regarding a variety of issues, such as Trump’s break with the “One China Policy,” China’s support of North Korea, trade policy, currency manipulation, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea based on its historic governance of the region, despite international laws stating otherwise; a claim which infringes on the exclusive economic zone of neighbouring countries. The exclusive economic zone refers to a zone of 200 nautical miles from the coast that a state has rights over as determined by The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China continues to conduct military drills in the South China Sea and smaller South Asian nations, like the Philippines and Japan, are responding by building up their arms in anticipation a potential conflict with China. South Korea has tried to maintain a position of neutrality regarding the South China Sea given its own rocky relationship with China. An armed conflict in the region would have dire economic consequences, an estimated 5 trillion dollars of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea according to the Wall Street Journal. Using alternate shipping routes would not only be slower and more expensive but would also have would have serious environmental impacts as more pollutants would be emitted during the longer journeys. ASEAN (The Association of South Asian Nations) has advocated for the peaceful resolution of any territorial conflicts, recognizing the possibility of armed conflict in the region. China has proposed a bilateral resolution with its neighbours in the event of a conflict, while other countries prefer multilateral resolutions as a way to balance power in the face Chinese economic and military might.

In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China to resolve its territorial disputes with its neighbours, and China responded by telling the US to stay out of its affairs. The following year, the US Department of Defense went on to release a statement opposing the use force and accused China of incendiary behaviour towards its neighbours. The US and various international regulatory bodies have sided with smaller nations in their disputes with China regarding claims to the South China Sea. It is believed that the area is rich with oil and natural gas, however, there is a wide range of estimates about the amount oil from 7.5 billion to 11 billion tons of crude oil. On July 12, 2016, regarding China’s dispute with the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favour, rejecting China’s historic claim to the South China Sea that extends well past its exclusive economic zone. The Philippines based their case, not on a claim of sovereignty, but rather what constitutes reasonable and fair use of international waters.

During the presidential campaign, while he was a nominee, Trump styled himself as an isolationist and insisted that it is not the responsibility of the US to act as the world’s police. A sentiment that he no longer holds given the recent airstrikes on Syrian military bases and the US navy’s presence in the South China Sea. As US dominance wanes, it must confront China’s growing economic and military influence in an increasingly multi-polar world.