Spratly Islands Dispute

Published on Author waiteh16

On Tuesday October 27th the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese artificially constructed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which provoked outrage from the admiral of China’s navy who “urged Washington to “immediately correct its mistake” (theguardian.com).Satellite image of airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross reef in the South China Sea.

The Mischief and Subi reefs of the Spratly Islands have provoked significant controversy between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The islands are an important economic area for the numerous countries, as the area surrounding them contain unexplored reserves of oil and natural gas, bountiful fishing areas, and serves as a prevalent commercial shipping channel. To help cement their claims to the area, China began dredging the sand along the reefs to create a permanent military installation on the reef islands, which originally were completely submerged underwater during the high tide.

The dredging and construction of the artificial islands in the Spratly regions has increased tension between Bejing and Washington. “There are billions of dollars of commerce that float through that region of the world,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a news briefing. “Ensuring that free flow of commerce … is critical to the global economy” (theguardian.com). Many pentagon officials continually lobby for the White House to approach the issues with a harder line, due to the importance of the region and the increasing possibility of conflict among countries in the region in response to China’s efforts.

China remains adamant in their construction of these islands, noting that they will serve primarily for civilian purposes despite the reality that they are constructing airstrips for military fighter jets. The development in the Spratly Islands will continue to be a point of focus by the US government, and could be an area of the conflict if a reasonable solution is not reached in the region.


5 Responses to Spratly Islands Dispute

  1. Unless the trade routes will be significantly impacted in a negative way, I think this may be one foreign policy issue that the US should potentially ignore as the negatives of fighting China over this issue seem to outweigh the positives of these trade routes.

    • While I definitely agree that a war with China would be devastating and should be avoided at all costs, war is something neither nation wants and was not at all the intent of this US action. From my perspective the US merely was displaying a soft form of power projection in order to show China that their actions in the South China Sea would not be tolerated as well as their declaration of “borders” are not recognized internationally. At the very least this demonstrates to China that if they want to keep pulling these kind of shenanigans they need to have a strong navy to back it up.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Will on this issue, in terms of picking our fights wisely, this doesn’t seem critical as it currently stands. How much data is there on the value of oil and fishing resources in the area? I wonder if the US government is more concerned with being strong-armed out of position in a potentially lucrative economic zone rather than their stated goal of maintaining “free flow of commerce”.

  3. I agree with Jack. I believe this issue is too minor to go to war over, especially due to the fact that both nations want to avoid war at all costs. However, as we have seem time and time again throughout history, it is not unlike the United States to take initiative in promoting “freedom and democracy” (in this case, the right to the free flow of commerce). Although, I believe that the underlying motive of the U.S. is less about the “free flow of commerce” but rather, to not let China lay claim to the oil and natural gas (among other things) in that region.

  4. First, the natural resources story doesn’t hold (sea?) water. Deepwater drilling is hugely expensive, and the waters that might hold petroleum reserves are not near shore, either. Who wants to spend billions on a dry hole?

    Second, what of the “camel’s nose” argument? If China is expansionist – isn’t the above prima facie evidence of that? – then don’t we want to counter that earlier rather than later?

    Third, modern militaries are expensive. They also tend to tie into the political system at various levels. Don’t the generals on both sides want a bit of tension? They know how to keep things under control!

    Fourth, waving the red flag works wonders for embattled politicians, whether chosen in some sort of public contest or in a smoke-filled room. (Since the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping this has been both regular and peaceful, and while TV cameras aren’t recording the process, there’s little doubt about the smoke!) OK, but the tie-in: lines in the sand don’t get you much air time, you prefer a little more action than the generals. That however leaves room for misinterpretation: generals know how other generals will act, and crossing the line is not a minor provocation but the preface to war. Or is it that ignoramus at the top, since with the passing of China’s civil war heroes in neither the US nor China (nor Japan nor Korea) does the military have an “ex” in the most senior group? Miscalculation is quite possible.

    Fifth, while the Law of the Sea seems fairly clear, building up an atoll does not add strength to China’s claim, possession is 9/10ths of the law: dislodging would require a very pubic use of non-trivial levels of force that would have required an OK from the relevant commanders-in-chief (plural because surely the Philippines and Vietnam would be consulted well in advance and be allowed to veto any US decision…). Plus the law was written by the US (and Britain) [well, it’s complicated, but you could certainly be forgiven for assuming that]. Of course both the US and Britain are innocent parties in East Asia whose intentions in China in specific and East and Southeast Asia in general have always been gentlemanly and law-abiding, so the Chinese should without hesitation accede to international norms.

    Sixth and finally, while petroleum may not be at stake, fishing rights are. Close-in stocks of economically valuable fish are collapsing around the world, so trawlers cast their nets further from home. In sum this perspective reduces the whole thing to a bit of fishing in troubled waters.