The Platform

John Harris/U.S. Navy

The South China Sea is one of the most contested maritime spaces in the world. It is bordered by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam. The South China Sea dispute can be apprehended as a convergence of power politics and political economy with overlapping sovereignty claims. As Robert D. Kaplan writes, “The battle of the South China Sea [will] be the defining battle of the 21st century.”

Based on recent events, China’s behaviour has set the tone of the conflict. Of the four disputed chain of islands in the South China Sea, the Paracel chain is the one that China’s military can most easily access. It was here that the initial conflict emerged when South Vietnam occupied the Paracels in 1974. This naval skirmish eventuated as a consequence of the South Vietnamese government’s decision to award oil exploration contracts to Western companies. In 1988, another clash took place between China and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. China captured the Spratly Islands through naval power. In 1992, China started occupying the Mischief Reef– an atoll already claimed by the Philippines as its territory.

What is fuelling China’s behaviour is the presence of resources like oil, gas, and minerals. According to the World Bank, “The [South China Sea] holds a proven oil reserve of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.” Nevertheless, this is not a solitary reason for China’s aggression, the region also holds massive mineral deposits of titaniferous magnetite, zircon, monazite, tin, gold, and chromite. Moreover, the South China Sea caters to an annual global trade worth $5 trillion and acts as a linking channel for East Asia to Europe and Africa while functioning as the main trade route for unfinished goods between ASEAN, Japan, and China, something which makes the domain critical to global trade.


Currently, China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory. With its mission to become a world power, China views the South China Sea as an opportunity to show its commitment toward its goal of claiming what it feels historically belongs to it. Since announcing its sovereign claim over the sea in 2009, China has shown a deep commitment to defending this area.

China began creating artificial islands in 2012, adding 3,200 acres of land to seven uninhabitable features in the Spratly and changing the Fiery Cross Reef into a 270-acre island. This development of the islands as civilian and military bases gives them strategic value.

China’s maritime investment is significant, something that has been reiterated by the U.S. Department of Defence. “[China’s navy] is the largest navy in the Indo-Pacific, featuring at least 300 ships along with numerous submarines, amphibious ships, patrol crafts, and specialised ships.” The Pentagon also notes that China’s navy maintains “4 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, two nuclear-powered attack submarines, 16 diesel-powered attack submarines, 11 destroyers, 19 frigates, 11 corvettes, 3 amphibious transport docks, 10 tank landing ships, 9 medium landing ships, and 24 missile patrol craft.”

In 2018, Phil Davidson, the former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, raised his concerns that “Once occupied by the PLA forces China will be able to expand its influence thousands of miles to the South and project power deep into Oceania.” He further added that China could use these bases to challenge other countries it feels to be foreign in the region. Indeed, the multiple fortifications of forward operating bases with anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, sensor radar, and underground storage facilities, hint toward such a vision.

Vietnam and Indonesia

Vietnam has increased its capability to retaliate. Vietnam has installed A2AD capabilities that contain Russian-built kilo-class submarines accompanied by a network of anti-access missiles. Its fleet has also acquired SU-30 MK 2 multirole aircraft with a capacity to annihilate targets throughout the South China Sea. As has been reported, “Vietnam has also greatly expanded its [Coast Guard] presence, and is now fielding the second largest regional force which is larger than those of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia combined.”

Even Indonesia has also been reluctant to give up its claim on the Natuna Islands. In 2017, Indonesia renamed the waters of the North Natuna Islands the ‘North Natuna Sea’ just to highlight their presence. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has encouraged military mobilisation calling for the establishment of a ‘Minimum Essential Force’ by 2024. This would be done by ensuring requisite naval, air, and maritime capabilities to defend Indonesia’s claims and pursue its aspirations. Indonesia also maintains multirole aircraft and fields a multi-range air defence system.

The United States

As a crucial conduit for maritime trade, the South China Sea has attracted a lot of attention from the United States. Initially, U.S. intervention in the region was motivated by the Cold War, however, in the wake of the cessation of the Cold War, American interest in the region re-ignited because of its involvement in energy exploration with several regional countries. This interest has been threatened by Chinese expansionism. Several encounters between the U.S. and Chinese warships occurred in 2009, culminating in a standoff between the USNS Impeccable and five Chinese vessels. This growing antagonism between the two countries has also provided ASEAN ample opportunity to restructure its cooperation, thereby significantly hampering Chinese expansionism.

In 2018, the U.S. flew bombers into the region as a show of force. During the same time, the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces also conducted drills. Within Japan, the U.S. maintains a large number of military bases with defence facilities. On January 24, two U.S. aircraft carriers was reported in the South China Sea while China flew 39 aircraft near Taiwan. Admiral John C. Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently shared in an interview, “Over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since World War Two by [China]. They have advanced all their capabilities and that build-up of weaponization is destabilizing to the region.” Another recent statement released by the U.S. Navy stated that, “the U.S. forces have been operating on a daily basis in the South China Sea as they have been for more than a century.” It is highly unlikely that the United States will abandon the South China Sea.


Tensions in the South China Sea are largely due to China’s overly aggressive approach to the region. A critical role is played by the nine-dash line policy adopted by China, which undermines the sovereignty of other states, creating an environment of trepidation and conflict.

International law was established in the 1950s and its obligations have been met with ignorance and selfish intent. Besides, the attempt at peaceful bilateral resolution has been disrupted by the growth of military weaponization in the region. Even Indonesia is facing significant breaches of its sovereignty by China, a sign that China is expanding its assertive behaviour at a much faster pace now. Finally, the United States’ role is increasingly being challenged by Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, diminishing the likelihood of a peaceful resolution.

Anmol Rattan Singh is pursuing his MA in Public Policy and Governance from Centre for Federal Studies, Public Policies and Governance from Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi.

Tejvir Bawa is a graduate in political science from Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest are energy security, military history and war studies.