South China Sea



The South China Sea is an incredibly strategic body of water located between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  At stake is one of the busiest trade routes in the world as well as oil and fishing rights.  Recently China has been pressing its claim to long disputed parts of the South China Sea, raising concerns as to what may happen as tensions rise.  Join Active Minds for a closer look at this delicate situation.

Key Lecture Points

  • The South China Sea is a body of water in Asia encircled by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.  Ultimately, it is part of the westernmost Pacific Ocean. It contains numerous island chains and reefs, most notably the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.  The area is also characterized by numerous shoals which contribute to the wealth of natural resources, most notably fishing grounds.
  • The South China Sea is incredibly important economically, and therefore strategically. Roughly 5.3 trillion dollars worth of the global shipping trade passes through the South China Sea each year and 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are believed to lie in fossil fuel deposits beneath the waters.
  • China, Taiwan, The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam maintain competing and overlapping claims to the waters of the South China Sea and island chains, reefs and shoals within it.  This has come to be a source of tension on the level of everyday use and navigation by fishermen and naval ships as well as at the highest levels of state diplomacy.
  • China has been the most assertive in the size of area it has claimed as its own and in its willingness to project its military might into the sea in order to substantiate those claims.  As part of its strategy, China has undertaken a sovereign claim to nearly all the waters of the South China Sea, with a particular emphasis on the building up of artificial islands in the places where reefs and shoals are shallow.  In many ways China’s behavior in the South China Sea illustrates the country’s rise to superpower status and its desire to project its influence regionally.
  • The US maintains its right to the “freedom of the seas” in the South China Sea.  This includes operating reconnaissance operations in the waters off the coast of China, as well as sailing in close proximity to the artificial islands China has created in the recent years.
  • Competition for control over and use of the South China Sea’s resources has contributed to significant overfishing and other ecological crises that threaten the sea’s ecosystems and biodiversity.

Exploration Questions

  • What perspectives are missing from the dominant narratives and discourses about the South China Sea conflict?
  • Imagine the South China Sea 20 years from now. What does the geopolitical landscape look like? What is the extent of China's control, and what level is US involvement?
  • What agreements would need to be put into place in order to safeguard the fragile ecosystems of the South China Sea while allowing for economic productivity?

Reflective Questions

  • Imagine that you are a top official in the Chinese government. What is your perspective on the South China Sea, and how would you justify your position? How do you view UN treaties and court rulings with respect to your country's activities in the South China Sea?
  • Imagine that you are the leader of an ASEAN nation bordering the South China Sea. What trade-offs do you face in claiming territory and confronting China compared with accommodating China's vast claims?
  • Imagine that you are a fisherman from one of the Southeast Asian countries bordering the South China Sea (e.g., Philippines, Vietnam). How does the territorial dispute affect your livelihood? What fears and concerns do you have?

More to Explore

  • New York Times explanation of the dispute Click here
  • New York Times interactive article on China's efforts Click here

For Further Reading

  • Hayton, Bill. The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.  320 pages.  Hayton, a longtime BBC journalist, excels in distilling the complexity and absurdity of the South China Sea disputes—which include overlapping claims by Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam—into a manageable narrative.
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  • Kaplan, Robert D. Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. New York: Random House, 2015.  256 pages.  Kaplan considers the geopolitics of the South China Sea and makes a compelling argument that the strategically important body of water is likely to become the “Mitteleuropa of the twenty-first century,” a flashpoint for future regional power struggles with serious international consequences.
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  • Storey, Ian, and Lin Cheng-yi, Eds. The South China Sea Dispute: Navigating Diplomatic and Strategic Tensions. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2016.  320 pages.  Featuring some of the world's leading experts on Asian security, this volume explores the central drivers of the disputes in the South China Sea and examines the positions and policies of the main actors.
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  • Borton, James. Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2017.  254 pages.  This collection of academic essays examines many interpretations of international law on the legal status of the contested islands and rocks in the South China Sea.
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