If World War III breaks out, there is a good chance it will start in the South China Sea. While such a war is highly unlikely, the chance has only gone up as the U.S-Chinese relationship has deteriorated. In May, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that coronavirus was developed in a Chinese laboratory. On May 28, the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin violated the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit of Woody Island in the South China Sea, an island claimed by both Vietnam and China. On July 6, the U.S. and Japan conducted massive war games in the South China Sea, involving two carrier strike groups and cutting edge guided missile cruisers. The U.K.’s newest supercarrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to join the U.S. and Japanese warships. On July 13, the U.S. State Department issued a press release opposing nearly all Chinese claims to the South Chinese Sea. On July 23, the U.S. ordered the Chinese embassy in Houston to close. China has reacted to these hostile acts with reciprocal measures.
When the U.S. propagated conspiracy theories about coronavirus originating in a Chinese laboratory, Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded by suggesting that the U.S. military brought the virus to China. During the western naval exercise, China had a smaller military exercise in the South China Sea as well. After the Chinese embassy in Houston was shut down, China immediately shut down the U.S. embassy in the province of Chengdu. With tensions rising, the South Chinese Sea has become the military frontline for the two competing powers.
Why does the South Chinese Sea matter?
China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines all maintain overlapping territorial claims to the South China Sea. The overlapping claims to the sea are based on the nations competing territorial claims to small islands, islets, and “features”, such as reefs and rocks that barely jut out of the sea. While many of the islands matter little themselves, claims to the surrounding waters can be made because the island’s sovereign is entitled to 12-miles of territorial water and a 200 mile exclusive economic zone under international law. Control of the waters is important because $5.3 Trillion, or one third of all maritime trade in the world, passes through the South China Sea. Additionally, the sea is home to an estimated 293 to 344 billion barrels of oil and 30 to 72 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.
China claims most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, up to what is called the “nine-dash line” (pictured above). Chinese authorities cite over 2,000 years of commercial activities near the islands as the historical basis for this claim. China also says that they were the first to discover many of the islands in question. The “Nine Dash Line” was originally claimed in 1947 by the U.S. backed Republic of China. When Chinese communists overthrew that government, they continued to claim the “nine dash line”.
The most controversial “dash” in the line is the southernmost dash. This dash is based on China’s claim to the Spratly Island chain, which is also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. China has claimed the islands as Chinese territory since the 12th Century. The U.S. media will often portray the Chinese claim to the Spratly’s as ridiculous by focusing on the James Shoal and other semi-submerged features. However, while China has developed and claimed many semi-submerged features, none of these features serve as the basis for China’s territorial claims anywhere in the South China Sea.
The U.S. says that it is merely trying to enforce agreed upon international law in the South China Sea. U.S. authorities cite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration for this claim. That body ruled broadly in favor of the Philippines against China in the South China Sea, and specifically ruled China had no claim to the Spratly Islands. While both China and the Philippines are signatories to the court, China did not participate in the arbitration. China said in a position paper that it did not participate because the court has no jurisdiction to determine sovereignty of disputed territory. Additionally, China says in the paper that the Philippines have made numerous public promises, dating back to the 90’s, to resolve any dispute amongst themselves and not engage in unilateral arbitration.
History of Imperialism in the South China Sea
In a historical vacuum, it is easy to make China appear to be the aggressor in the South China Sea. However, once a basic history of the Asian-Pacific is factored in, it becomes apparent that the western imperialist powers are the aggressors. Over the last several hundred years, the South China Sea was a vital passage for the theft of people and resources from Asia. While Britain was the preeminent colonial power during most of this time, all western powers participated in and/or benefited from colonialism.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth created the East India Trading Company for the express purpose of better exploiting the Asian-Pacific region. Over the next 400 plus years, British imperialists, with the occasional military support of other European powers, would kill hundreds of millions of people in the region. From 1600 to 1850, hundreds of thousands of African and Asian slaves would be kidnapped and transported through the South Chinese Sea and surrounding waterways by the British and the Dutch. During this time, India was the “crown jewel” of the company’s possessions. According to Indian Marxist economist Utsa Patnaik, $45 trillion dollars were stolen from the Indian economy and redirected to England’s coffers. More significantly, she estimates 1.8 billion Indian’s were killed by British genocide. Sadly, European imperialism was equally brutal elsewhere.
When the Qing dynasty in China banned the sale of Opium in 1839 because of massive opium addiction within Chinese society, Britain launched a full scale war against China for their “right” to “trade” opium. When the opium trade was again outlawed in 1856, Britain again declared war on China, albeit this time with French help. In addition to reimposing the Opium trade, Britain took direct possession of the Chinese city of Hong Kong, which it would keep until 1997. France rewarded itself with Vietnam.
In 1852, modern U.S. warships sailed into the Japanese capital Edo and demanded Japanese authorities open up the country to exploitative trade or the U.S. would declare war. In Australia, British settlers massacred and stole the entire continent from the Indigenous population over several hundred years. In 1899, Filipinos rebelled against the U.S. occupation forces in the Philippines. In the ensuing war, over 1 million Filipino civilians would be butchered, burnt alive, killed in their sleep, worked to death in concentration camps, and otherwise murdered by U.S. forces. Indonesia and Malaysia were colonized by a plethora of European powers, the Dutch being the foremost. During the 1825 Java “War”, the Dutch killed 200,000 Indonesian’s while putting down a popular rebellion.
In 1914, the European imperialists, in a fit of self-consuming avarice, fought a world war over control of colonies. After the war, colonies in Asia would be freely exchanged by the victorious European powers and Japan. One of the main reasons for World War II would be Japanese discontentedness over not gaining as many colonies in the peace process as its European allies. Japan launched that world war in 1937 by attacking China. Publicly, Japan said it was creating an “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere free from European colonialism. However, Japan massacred, starved, and sex trafficked everywhere it occupied. After World War II, it would be the victorious U.S which would take over as the dominant colonial power in the region.
In U.S. occupied South Korea, the military dictatorship immediately began massacring dissidents. Eventually, the U.S. would invade Korea by sea to put down the popular communist uprising. During the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation, 3 million Koreans would be killed. The U.S. used bioweapons and publicly threatened to use nuclear weapons against the DPRK and China.
In Vietnam, French forces were defeated by a popular communist insurgency in 1954. As the French withdrew, the U.S. took over the military occupation. South Vietnam’s puppet government subsequently canceled national elections on the reunification of Vietnam mandated under the 1954 Geneva Accord. In 1964, the U.S. Navy attacked the North Vietnamese navy in the Gulf of Tonkin, a mere 500 miles from the South China Sea. By falsely claiming that the U.S. had instead been attacked by the North Vietnamese, the incident served as the pretext for a major escalation of the war. 3.8 million Vietnamese alone would be killed by U.S. genocide in Vietnam, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and Laotians. Many were killed by the U.S. military in village massacres and terror bombings. While the Vietnam war raged, U.S. sponsored nationalist death squads massacred over 1 million communists in Indonesia.
Western imperialism in the Asian-Pacific region continues to this day. In addition to U.S. military aggression towards China, the DPRK continues to be sanctioned by the U.S. Western corporations continue to rely on local client states in the region to provide cheap labor. Even China is now facing sanctions from the U.S. Needless to say, the history of western imperialism and colonialism continues to be the single greatest destabilizing element in the region.
China is not the aggressor in it’s own backyard. While China’s economy continues to rapidly overtake the U.S., the U.S. currently has a military advantage. The U.S. has approximately 6,800 nuclear weapons. China has approximately 290. The U.S. has 11 massive supercarriers. China has just two much smaller and less advanced aircraft carriers. When this force differential is factored in, when the history of the region is examined, the claim that China is the aggressor in the South China Sea is exposed as the lie that it is. Rather, It becomes apparent that the U.S. and its western allies are the aggressors.
The South China Sea is a vital area for the national security of China. No great power would stand by as a hostile bloc of nations concentrated a massive military force just off its coast. How would the U.S. respond if China, Iran and Venezuela held naval exercises a few hundred miles from Los Angeles? Whatever one thinks of the competing territorial claims, geopolitical reality necessitates that China respond militarily to an invasion, even if an invasion is highly unlikely. If China falls too far behind militarily, history has shown that the U.S. will either attack or bully its way into a forced resolution. Until the western powers remove their military presence, any just and peaceful resolution to the South China Sea dispute remains impossible.