Background: The body of water commonly referred to as the South China Sea is located in the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by (in clockwise formation) China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. In addition to its geopolitical significance, where a third of the world’s shipping transits through, it is reported that “under the seabed lies as much as 130 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillian cubic feet of gas.”
Historically, the surrounding countries always had competing claims to the diminutive and mostly uninhabited islands, but recent events between the U.S. ally, the Philippines, and China have exacerbated tensions. The New York Times’ Jane Perlez contextualizes an incident over one of the islands:
“Superficially, the squabble was over some rare corals, clams and poached sharks that Philippine Navy seamen were trying to retrieve in early April from the fishing boats operating in the Scarborough Shoal of the South China Sea until two Chinese Marine Surveillance craft intervened. After two tense days, the Philippine ship — a refitted Coast Guard cutter sent by the United States last year to beef up its ally’s weak defenses — withdrew. But the stakes were much larger, as the insistent claims ever since of sovereignty over the shoal by both the Philippine and Chinese governments made clear. The incident intensified longstanding international questions over the strategically critical, potentially energy-rich South China Sea that have become more urgent this year as the long-dominant United States and fast-growing China both seek to increase their naval power in the region.”
Below, we provide a sampler of perspectives from the parties involved, that is China, the Philippines, and the U.S.:
- Li Mingjiang is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the China Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In the East Asia Forum, Mingjiang outlines the Chinese perspective, what they see as “China’s Non-Confrontational Assertiveness in the South China Sea,” since China argues that it has a right to 200-nautical-mile zone.
- In The Diplomat, Mong Palatino, member of Philippine Parliament, explains “Why Filipinos are Angry with China,” since Beijing’s territorial claims infringe upon deposits that Manila claims as its own and has already planned to begin drilling.
- Brendan O’Reilly, a China-based writer and educator, wrote in Asia Times how, aside from the U.S. and the Philippines’ extensive diplomatic and military ties, an incident highlighting the latter’s tenuous defense bolsters arguments for Obama Administration’s strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific and a stronger U.S. military presence in region.
- Discussion of increasing freedom of navigation for the U.S. military’s Pacific patrols and missions brings up the contentious issue of whether or not the U.S. should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Proponents of the Treaty argue that it codifies U.S. military freedom of action vis-à-vis its own legal standing to bring complaints to an international dispute resolution body. Opponents and skeptics of international law view the treaty as anything from a breach of U.S. sovereignty to an in-executable waste of time.
- For example, Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council for Foreign Relations, Stewart Patrick, states that “Everyone Agrees: Ratify the Law of the Sea,” citing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and the U.S. military writ large in his argument as to how the treaty is profoundly in the U.S. national interest.
- On the other hand, Patrick’s colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot, argues that, “China seems bent on laying claim to those resources, no matter what the Law of the Sea Treaty says, which highlights the chief problem with international law: the difficulty of actually enforcing it.”
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