What is going on in the South China Sea?

Everything you need to know about the disputed patch of sea that could trigger World War III.

Peter Iantorno June 29, 2015

The South China Sea is rather an important patch of water.

A third of all maritime traffic worldwide passes through it, including more than half of the global ship-borne trade, estimated at a value of $5 trillion per year. 

Not only that, but it also just so happens to contain (according to Chinese estimates) some 130 billion barrels of crude oil, and up to 26 trillion cubic metres of as yet untapped natural gas.

If these estimations are correct (although the US has disputed them), it would mean that the South China Sea contains more oil than anywhere in the world bar Saudi Arabia.

South-China-Sea11.jpg Reclaimed land in the South China Sea

Unsurprisingly, most countries that are geographically located anywhere near this potential gold mine lays a claim to at least part of it, with the 200 or so small islands and coral reefs, including the Spratley and Parcel Islands – ideal for oil and gas exploration or military bases – proving especially hotly contested.

Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands, Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratleys, The Philippines claims eight islands, plus a portion of the sea, and Vietnam, Taiwan and China all have a claim over most of the South China Sea, plus all of the Spratly and Parcel Islands. 

Clearly, when it comes to military might, none of the claimants can pose a challenge to the Chinese, and predictably this has seen the military powerhouse pretty much run roughshod over its neighbours, seizing many of the islands including the Spratleys and building what, to all intents and purposes, are military structures, complete with helipads, runways and gun turrets.

South-China-Sea10.jpg Chinese construction in the disputed Spratley Islands

As one would imagine, relations between the conflicting nations are not the best, and they took another turn for the worse recently after a documentary series entitled Karapatan sa Dagat, translated as “Maritime Rights”, was released to coincide with the Filipino Independence Day on June 12.

Responding to the documentary, which defended the Philippines’ position in the conflict, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on the ministry's website: "The Philippines is attempting to mislead and deceive, gain sympathy by cheating and create the illusion of the 'victim.”

Just a few days ago, on June 27, Vietnamese media reported that China’s Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HS981) oil rig - which was removed last year after mass anti-China protests in Vietnam and several incidents in a China-imposed "no-sail" zone near the rig - had reappeared, just a few miles away from the disputed waters.

South-China-Sea9.jpg Chinese ships used water cannons on Vietnamese vessels to enforce a strict no-sail zone near its HS981 oil rig

And an announcement from the China Maritime Safety Administration seemed to back up these reports, claiming that the rig will stay in place until August 20 and adding that, “sailing within 2,000 metres of the rig is prohibited”. Or, in other words: “back off”. 

With the mismatch between China and the other quarrelling countries, the only real hope the likes of the Philippines has of a resolution in its favour is if the likes of the US - China's military equal, and also a party with a vested interest in controlling the essential trade route - steps in and opposes the Chinese.

So far, the US has publicly condemned China’s development in the South China Sea, with Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken likening the situation to Russia and Ukraine, and saying that “the United States and our allies and partners [will] stand united”, against any Chinese transgressions.

South-China-Sea6.jpg A Filipino soldier patrolling the shore of The Philippines' most isolated village, Thitu.

But in reality, short of threatening military action and starting off World War III, or imposing economic penalties that would be a bigger blow to itself than the country that recently overtook it as the biggest economy in the world, there’s not an awful lot the US can do.

With Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi coming out recently to claim that if China changed its position on the conflict it would be “shaming our ancestors,” the likelihood of China backing down is remote at best.

When it comes to economically sensitive matters such as oil and gas, it's no surprise to see the powerful countries pulling rank. Closer to home, we have seen a very similar thing happen in the Middle East, with Qatar being accused of plundering Iran's share of the Arabian Gulf's South Pars Gas Field, and Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon scrapping over oil and gas in the Levant Basin.

How will it all end? Who knows, but we have a sneaking suspicion that those with the most power will get their way in the end.