5 Flashpoints in the South China Sea

Things are heating up in the Greater Pacific. Here are five key spots to watch.

Read more about China’s military moment here.

As tensions mount in the South China Sea, an isolated stretch of the South Pacific has become the latest testing ground for how a regionally ascendant China will manage ties with its neighbors. Many fear that China will steamroll its neighbors in securing access to lucrative natural resources — vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals — in the South China Sea. China’s decision this week to name a little-known city on a postage stamp of an island in the South Pacific as the administrative capital of an enormous swath of ocean seemed to confirm those fears.

But what exactly is at stake in the South China Sea? For starters, as many as 213 billion barrels of oil –more than the reserves of any country except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela — according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As a result, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei are engaged in fierce jockeying over the rights to what at first glance are not more than a handful of rocks.

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China’s newest prefecture-level city, Sansha governs a land area across the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands of 5 square miles, a number dwarfed by the 770,000 square miles of ocean China claims is under Sansha’s jurisdiction. Located on Woody Island, the largest island in the Paracels, Sansha is city of 3,500 whose residents, mostly fishermen, didn’t have cellphone service until 2004 and who lack a school, but supposedly govern an area equal to one-tenth of China’s land area. There is no airport on the island, but a lengthened runway can accommodate Chinese fighter jets. Sansha’s provocative name means “three sandbanks,” a reference to the three major atolls that make up most of the Paracels and are claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

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The site of what one Philippine energy company, Philex Petroleum, estimates to be a “massive” natural gas well, Reed Bank could contain twice the natural gas found in the Philippines’ largest natural gas deposit, a windfall potentially worth billions of dollars. Drilling at the site, which becomes completely submerged at high tide, is expected to begin next year. Philex has expressed interest in jointly developing the reef, but tensions between China and the Philippines have slowed the project. In an effort to assert its territorial claim over the bank, the Philippine government began referring to it as Recto Bank last June in honor of 20th-century Filipino nationalist politician Claro M. Recto.



A circular reef 4 miles in diameter that lies completely submerged below the South China Sea, Mischief Reef takes its name from Heribert Mischief, a German crewmember under Henry Spratly, who is credited with discovering the reef in 1791. In 1994 China constructed a series of structures on stilts on top of the reef, thereby occupying it. The Chinese says the structures are shelters for Chinese fishermen; the Philippines, which also claims the reef, argues that the structures represent a “creeping invasion” by the Chinese. In 1996 China dredged the reef to allow larger vessels to enter. Since building the initial structures, China has fortified them and dredged the reef, which has led to speculation that the atoll could be used to dock warships.



The Scarborough Shoals are a series of rocks that enclose a 60-square-mile lagoon and barely crest the surface of the South Pacific. Named for an East India Company ship that sank after hitting the rock formation in 1784, the Scarborough Shoals lie about 200 miles due west of Manila and are claimed by the Philippines, China, and Taiwan. The shoals are considered one of several abundant fishing grounds in the South China Sea, but their most distinctive feature is an aging iron tower erected at the mouth of the underwater lagoon by the Philippine navy in 1965. In April, China and the Philippines engaged in a tense naval standoff over the shoals that became the centerpiece of a call by Philippine President Benigno Aquino to expand the nation’s military.



The largest island in the Spratly chain, Taiping Island is controlled by Taiwan, which is reportedly considering extending the island’s runway to better accommodate military aircraft. China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim the island, which as the archipelago’s largest landmass carries significant strategic importance. Taiwanese forces have occupied Taiping Island since 1955; its name, fittingly or ironically, means “Island of Peace.”


Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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