Demystifying the South China Sea (SCS)
This topic has been covered thoroughly in Current Affairs Explainer (March 2020). Link to be attached. Here’s snippet about this topic in short.
The South China Sea is one of the most contested maritime spaces in the world. It is bordered by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam. The South China Sea dispute can be apprehended as a convergence of power politics and political economy with overlapping sovereignty claims. As Robert D. Kaplan writes, “The battle of the South China Sea [will] be the defining battle of the 21st century.” Based on recent events, China’s behaviour has set the tone of the conflict. Of the four disputed chain of islands in the South China Sea, the Paracel chain is the one that China’s military can most easily access. It was here that the initial conflict emerged when South Vietnam occupied the Paracels in 1974. This naval skirmish eventuated as a consequence of the South Vietnamese government’s decision to award oil exploration contracts to Western companies. In 1988, another clash took place between China and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. China captured the Spratly Islands through naval power. In 1992, China started occupying the Mischief Reef– an atoll already claimed by the Philippines as its territory.
Geography: The South China Sea is of great economic and geo-strategic significance covering 3,500,000 square kilometers of surface area. It is identified as an western arm of the Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia. Encompassed by China’s south region, West of the Philippines, North of the Island of Borneo and Vietnam’s east and south. The South China Sea’s ‘Heart of Islands’, the water’s body, is confined by the Gulf of Thailand’s southern part and by the Malay Peninsula’s east coast. Both marginal seas of the pacific-ocean connect the South China Sea, Philip- pine Sea with Luzon Strait and East China Sea with Taiwan Strait. Moreover, it is collectively composed of several archipelagos clusters of small inhabited islands, cays and shoals (Islets), reefs and seamounts numbering in the hundreds.
The Significance of the South China Sea: The presence of resources like oil, gas, and minerals present its importance in the region. According to the World Bank, “The [South China Sea] holds a proven oil reserve of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.” Nevertheless, this is not a solitary reason for China’s aggression, the region also holds massive mineral deposits of titaniferous magnetite, zircon, monazite, tin, gold, and chromite. Moreover, the South China Sea caters to an annual global trade worth $5 trillion and acts as a linking channel for East Asia to Europe and Africa while functioning as the main trade route for unfinished goods between ASEAN, Japan, and China, something which makes the domain critical to global trade.