In order to firmly grasp, and understand the current situation in the South China Sea (SCS), it needs to be viewed from the two very divergent perspectives that dominate the thinking behind the geopolitical decisions being made by the major players in the area: Western (US and its allies) and Chinese.
From the Western point of view, China’s claims of sovereignty in the SCS, and construction of ports, airfields, and other military installations in the Paracel and Spratly Islands are nothing short of aggressive, willful violations of international law. China’s insists that, under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence gathering activities inside of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The United States holds the position that under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) claimant nations have the right to freedom of navigation through EEZs and cannot be prevented. China’s position can potentially hold international commerce hostage if Beijing should so decide. As a result, it should not be allowed to stand.
The People’s Republic of China views its SCS actions as an essential to the establishment of the First island chain, the keystone of China’s Island Chain Strategy. The First island chain refers to the first line of archipelagos located east of the Chinese mainland. China views this area as one which must be secured to prevent US military forces from actively operating there in a time of hostilities. It would seal off the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea from the naval and air forces of the US and its allies. China is well on its way towards achieving the First island chain policy. Every move it makes in the SCS is critical to reaching that goal by the 2020-2022 timeframe.
A military clash between these two contradictory positions could very well be imminent. The Trump administration’s stance on China’s militarization of the SCS continues to evolve, and Beijing’s SCS plans appear to be moving forward regardless of Washington’s protests, and Freedom of Navigation exercises in the area. Despite the lack of coverage, and discussion in the media, the South China Sea situation will demand close attention in the coming weeks. Further incidents between US and Chinese ships like the one last week could provide the catalyst for a major US-China war in the Western Pacific.