Tensions in the South China Sea flare up as the US sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of the man-made islands China had built in the disputed zone. Washington’s bold move is in response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness in claiming the Spratly Islands. As other smaller Asian countries can offer no strong resistance, the US steps up to protect its power in the region.

Where is the South China Sea?

The South China Sea borders the Pacific Ocean and has small clusters of islands called the Spratly, Paracel and Scarborough Islands. They are situated between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. The highly disputed zone has rich oil deposits, gas reserves and fishery.

south china sea

Photo credit: “Schina sea 88” by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – Asia Maps — Perry-Castañeda Map Collection: South China Sea (Islands) 1988. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

According to current international maritime law, countries are permitted to claim possession of the 12 nautical mile zone around the islands. For years, the surrounding countries have competed for ownership of these islands; particularly China, the Philippines and Vietnam who are the more assertive contestants. But maritime rules forbid nations from declaring ownership. Southeast Asian nations have the US’ backing while China stands alone.

Competition for the area has put great strains on diplomatic relations.  In July 2011, the US and Vietnam held joint naval exercises and non-combatant training which angered China. Three months later, the US and the Philippines conducted an assault exercise program near the Spratly Islands to intimidate Beijing. Diplomatic efforts have also failed to appease all sides because no one wants to give any concessions. In the 2011 East Asia Conference, the US bluntly said ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) should have total control of the area. Discussions in the 2012 ASEAN Forum in Phnom Penh were also unable to come up with any solutions.

What is happening at the South China Sea now?

In early October 2015 Beijing announced it has finished building two lighthouses on Johnson South Reef and Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands. China’s controversial decision responds to the US’ more forceful moves to spy on Beijing’s activities in the area. In 2013, Obama commanded two B-52 bombers to fly through the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. In May 2015, Chinese authorities issued a warning to a US P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft to evacuate the area.

South China Sea

Photocredit: Flickr/APEC 2013/ President China Hadiri APEC 2013
5 Oktober 2013

Washington alleges the man-made islands have communications and military infrastructure, and helipads. China argues the construction of these islands are legal, and President Xi had told President Obama China had “no intention to militarise” the islands. Beijing insists the lighthouses are for research activity, maritime search and disaster relief assistance.

Washington’s action is provocative, and it intends to be because it is part of the US’ efforts to limit Chinese expansionism. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter firmly said:

“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.”

But Beijing’s answer is Washington is flexing its “military muscles again and again”. The rising superpower has its own reasons to worry; if the US wrestles control over the South China Sea, it will have another outpost to check on China and privilege access to natural resources.

US dilemma in Asia

The South China Sea issue continues to be a thorn in the side of China-US relations. China is the US’ third largest trading partner; in 2014 American exports to China was worth $124 billion.  But Washington is prepared to risk further damaging bilateral relations with Beijing in order to check on China’s growing political power in Asia.

Under the Obama Administration, the US has taken a tougher stance against China and has put the South China Sea dispute as one of its main policies. Hillary Clinton, who served as the Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, said there needs to a ‘rebalance’ of US military and political influence in the region. Currently, the US has military bases stationed in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, Singapore and British Indian Ocean Territory. It has also strengthened its bilateral relations with Vietnam and the Philippines (not current member but announced interest) through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other joint military activities.

South China Sea

Photo credit: “Secretary Kerry and President Xi July 2014” by U.S. Department of State . Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

China’s rise to global economics and power has alarmed Washington because the Asian giant has potential to challenge the US. China is the world’s second largest economy and its military spending has increased over the past years. Last year, it spent $130bn and it is forecasted to rise by 10% this year. 10% this year, and in 2014 the country spent $130bn.

Washington is not only wary of China’s intentions in the South China Sea, but also:

  • China’s political goals to reunify with Taiwan; China contests Taiwan is a part of its territory due to historical claims. Former President George W Bush pledged Washington will do “whatever it takes” to protect Taiwan from being threatened by China. In 2010, the US made a US$6.4 million arms trade deal with Taiwan.
  • Fierce competition over the Diaoyu Islands (also known as the Senkaku Islands) with Japan at the East China Sea
  • Growing tensions with Japan, who is a main ally of the US in Asia

To Washington, this is a clear sign Beijing is more ambitious and daring. A stronger and more confident China means US hegemony in the region is reduced. Asia remains as a strategically important region to the US as the continent has a mass population with vast economic and military interests.

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Hsin-Yi Lo

Hsin-Yi Lo

I am freelance journalist and writer, and a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Kent. I am originally from Melbourne, Australia.