A guide to the escalating conflict in the South China Sea

A guide to the escalating conflict in the South China Sea

China and its neighbors have been engaged in tit-for-tat muscle-flexing maneuvers in recent weeks over who controls areas of the strategically important and resource-rich South China Sea, causing headaches in the region and elsewhere, and raising fears of a more serious flare-up.

What’s the fight about?

It’s a territorial dispute that goes back decades, but has grown more heated as China has become bolder on the world stage. China claims it has the right to just about the entire South China Sea. Its neighbors, not surprisingly, dispute that claim and say China is using its power to bully them. Vietnam has been the most vocal in recent weeks, holding live-fire drills on the water and urging international mediation led by the United States.

Vietnamese leaders have been bolstered by popular outrage domestically at China’s actions. But they are not alone. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have all claimed a part of the territory.

"It would be as if [the United States] just declared the entire Atlantic Ocean was our territorial waters, and anyone else who tried to explore it, we could do what we want to them — cut their cables, sink their ships," Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations told Passport. "They are not just going to let China take it over. China’s claim is so enormous it would take up the entire sea. Their claims are absurd."

What’s so significant about the territory?

For starters, it’s one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. But more importantly, it’s loaded with oil. No one knows quite how much, though, since exploration has been so difficult given the political climate surrounding it. China estimates there could be as many as 213 billion barrels of oil reserves, which would place it second in the world behind only Saudi Arabia. That might be vastly overstated; American scientists estimate it’s closer to 28 billion barrels. The sea could also possess large quantities of natural gas reserves.

How tense is it in the region right now?

Kurlantzick and other experts are quick to point out that this is not the first time tensions have spiked in recent years. In 1995, after China built structures on the Spratly Islands, the Philippines was able to convince the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a rare statement denouncing China’s action. But this feels different, experts say, not least because China has grown so much more powerful and confident. And other countries are acting less restrained as well. On June 13, Vietnam staged live-fire naval exercises, and the Philippines announced late last week it would soon send its biggest warship to a disputed part of the sea.

Meanwhile, China has been stepping up its confrontational posture, and not just rhetorically. On May 26 and June 9, its boats cut the cables of Vietnamese oil exploration ships. In response to Vietnam’s naval exercises, it sent one of its largest vessels to "patrol" the waters, and it promised to send hundreds more in the coming years, meaning the water dispute will become increasingly militarized.

What’s Washington’s position?

Vietnam has urged the United States to get involved and mediate a resolution. How likely is that? The United States has given no indication it wants a leading role, though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Beijing last July at an ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi when she said, "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea," and she urged a binding code of conduct for the states involved in the dispute. But other American officials have played down her comments, according to Kurlantzick.

Last week, Sen. Jim Webb, a key congressional voice on Asia issues, said he would introduce a resolution pushing for China to enter multilateral talks over the disputed territory.

China’s response came in the form of an editorial in its main military paper: "China resolutely opposes any country unrelated to the South China Sea issue meddling in disputes, and it opposes the internationalization of" the issue, it read.

How likely is this to escalate out of control?

Beijing has promised it won’t use force against its neighbors over the dispute, and it would be an incredibly risky move for it to do so. Given that China relies so heavily on imported fuel from the Middle East — most of which makes its way through the South China Sea — a conflagration that shuts down that transit area would have devastating repercussions for the emerging world power. But, analysts say, all sides are acting aggressively. And the dispute is happening at sea, with ships that are increasingly less restrained. A small spark could set off a chain of events that leads to a real showdown, or worse.