China and its neighbors have been engaged in tit-for-tat
muscle-flexing maneuvers in recent weeks over who controls areas of the
strategically important and resource-rich South China Sea, causing headaches in
the region and elsewhere, and raising fears of a more serious flare-up.
What's the fight
It's a territorial dispute that goes back decades, but has
grown more heated as China has become bolder on the world stage. China claims
it has the right to just about the entire South China Sea.
Its neighbors, not surprisingly, dispute that claim and say China is using its
power to bully them. Vietnam has been the most vocal in recent weeks, holding
live-fire drills on the water and urging international mediation led by the
Vietnamese leaders have been bolstered by popular outrage
domestically at China's actions. But they are not alone. The Philippines,
Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have all claimed a part of the territory.
"It would be as if [the United States] just declared the
entire Atlantic Ocean was our territorial waters, and anyone else who tried to
explore it, we could do what we want to them -- cut their cables, sink their
ships," Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations told Passport.
"They are not just going to let China take it over. China's claim is so
enormous it would take up the entire sea. Their claims are absurd."
What's so significant
about the territory?
For starters, it's one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
But more importantly, it's loaded with oil. No one knows quite how much,
though, since exploration has been so difficult given the political climate
surrounding it. China estimates there could be as many as 213 billion barrels
of oil reserves, which would place it second in the world behind only Saudi
Arabia. That might be vastly overstated; American scientists estimate it's
closer to 28 billion barrels. The sea could also possess large quantities of
natural gas reserves.
How tense is it in
the region right now?
Kurlantzick and other experts are quick to point out that
this is not the first time tensions have spiked in recent years. In 1995, after
China built structures on the Spratly Islands, the Philippines was able to
convince the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a rare
statement denouncing China's action. But this feels different, experts say, not
least because China has grown so much more powerful and confident. And other
countries are acting less restrained as well. On June 13, Vietnam staged
live-fire naval exercises, and the Philippines announced late last week it would
soon send its biggest warship to a disputed part of the sea.
Meanwhile, China has been stepping up its confrontational
posture, and not just rhetorically. On May 26 and June 9, its boats cut the
cables of Vietnamese oil exploration ships. In response to Vietnam's naval
exercises, it sent one of its largest vessels to "patrol" the waters, and it
promised to send hundreds more in the coming years, meaning the water dispute
will become increasingly militarized.
Vietnam has urged the United States to get involved and
mediate a resolution. How likely is that? The United States has given no indication it
wants a leading role, though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered Beijing last July at an
ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi when she said, "The United States has a national
interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and
respect for international law in the South China Sea," and she urged a binding code
of conduct for the states involved in the dispute. But other American officials
have played down her comments, according to Kurlantzick.
Last week, Sen. Jim Webb, a key congressional voice on Asia
issues, said he would introduce a resolution pushing for China to enter
multilateral talks over the disputed territory.
China's response came in the form of an editorial in its
main military paper: "China resolutely opposes any country unrelated to the
South China Sea issue meddling in disputes, and it opposes the
internationalization of" the issue, it read.
How likely is this to
escalate out of control?
Beijing has promised it won't use force against its neighbors
over the dispute, and it would be an incredibly risky move for it to do so. Given
that China relies so heavily on imported fuel from the Middle East -- most of
which makes its way through the South China Sea -- a conflagration that shuts down
that transit area would have devastating repercussions for the emerging world
power. But, analysts say, all sides are acting aggressively. And the dispute is
happening at sea, with ships that are increasingly less restrained. A small
spark could set off a chain of events that leads to a real showdown, or worse.