A War Of Words: China Talks Tough On The South China Sea Issue


On Sunday June 2nd 2019, tensions between the United States and China were again raised following controversial comments regarding China’s militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea. The islands are supposedly designed to defend China’s territorial claim to 80% of the ocean. The Shangri –La summit, held at the beginning of June 2019, became the epicentre of U.S.-Chinese tension, culminating in a war of words between defence ministries. In recent months, Beijing has been particularly critical of the Trump administration’s move to increase diplomatic and military support for Taiwan, including the sailing of U.S. naval ships through the Taiwan Strait in late November 2018.

Speaking to hundreds of delegates at the Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan avoided calling China out by name but criticized “some in our region” for using what he called a “toolkit of coercion” in the Indo-Pacific, which includes the controversial South China Sea. Shanahan said the Indo-Pacific region was the most important theatre for the U.S. from a security perspective. He asserted, “We can’t … continue to look the other way as countries use friendly rhetoric to distract from unfriendly acts,” he said, adding that Washington had a “deeper and broader” network of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific than China. Later in the conference, A senior Chinese military officer has accused the United States’ top defence official of using sensitive issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea to promote instability in the Asia-Pacific region. Lieutenant General Shao Yuanming, deputy chief of the Chinese Joint Staff Department, stated, “The one-China principle is the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations and the common consensus in the international community . . . But recent words and deeds released by the U.S. side have sent terribly wrong signals to Taiwan’s independence forces, which could undermine regional peace and stability”.

The history of the South China Sea dispute is protracted and complex. Competing claims of territorial sovereignty amongst The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia, over islands and smaller features in the South China Sea have been a longstanding source of tension and distrust in the region. The South China Sea is incredibly rich in natural resources. With an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and approximately 10% of the world’s global fisheries, the South China Sea is a hotly contentious geopolitical region. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was concluded in 1982 and came into force in 1994, established a legal framework intended to balance the economic and security interests of coastal states with those of seafaring nations. UNCLOS enshrines the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile area that extends sole exploitation rights to coastal nations over marine resources. However, the EEZ was never intended to serve as a security zone, and UNCLOS also guaranteed wide-ranging passage rights for naval vessels and military aircraft for all nations. Hence, The South China Sea became a thoroughfare-trading route, representing an estimated 30% of shipping trade of which links Asia, Europe, Africa and the United States to key international exporting markets. Recent activity in the region further destabilising U.S.-Chinese relations include island-building, deploying advanced weapons systems to disputed areas, predatory economics and alleged state-sponsored theft of military and civilian technology. In addition to these events the ongoing trade war between the two nations has recently ramped up following Trump’s imposition of huge tariffs and the inclusion of Huawei as a blacklisted import company within the United States.

At present, the ongoing deterioration of U.S.-China relations seek to encourage militaristic activity in the region. As China continues to develop man-made islands and militarize these geographical entities, the U.S. will continue to utilize its national economic and military powers. This crisis requires constructive, multilateral diplomacy between all nations professing to have a claim in the South China Sea region. The facilitation of open and constructive discussion may allow some concessions to be made by all nations and ensure mutual cooperation.

India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.

About India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.