A common theme when discussing China (and a theme that I have mentioned in numerous articles) is that of events currently unfolding in the South China Sea. For those of you who don’t watch the news, the situation is as follows: The South China Sea is an area (plot twist) just south of China. The sea is considered by most of the world as international waters, however China claims almost all of it. This has upset the other nations that border the sea –e.g. the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan- and has prompted the USA to test China by constantly sailing vessels through these waters to demonstrate exactly how ‘international’ they are.
This has obviously annoyed China, who have taken their claims further by building airports and military bases on many of the small islands that are dotted around the sea. In some cases these construction projects require the creation of almost entirely new islands. This, combined with an ever-increasing Chinese military presence has lead to increased tensions in the region. A Chinese fighter jet stationed on one of these new bases could reach the coast of the Philippines in 9 minutes, which is a threatening prospect for the country that has been one of the USA’s oldest allies. The situation evolved further today, when an international tribunal brought against China by the Philippines ruled (unsurprisingly) that Chinese claims on the region were unfounded.
From this, you may have gained the impression that the region could become a major flashpoint for a war between the USA and China, however the reality of the situation is very different. The simple fact of the matter is that neither the USA nor China is willing to start a (potentially nuclear) war over a couple of mostly barren rocks. Any possible gains that could be made through victory in the region would be vastly offset by the destruction such a conflict would cause. Even with Duterte –sometimes called the Filipino Trump- in power it is unlikely that the Philippines will be stupid enough to cause an open conflict with China over these islands. On top of this, though the nations of the South China Sea all agree that China is in the wrong, they do not present a united front to resist Chinese advances and this seems unlikely to change in the future.
So if war is not on the table, what happens next? It is likely in the coming weeks that we will see nations around the world (e.g. Japan, and European countries) demanding that China back off. These will be big words, but only words. China will shrug off these demands and will continue to build on the islands unhindered. The most extreme (and unlikely) consequences of the ruling would be some form of economic sanctions against China from Japan and the USA. This is unlikely however because China is such an important trading partner for the rest of the world. A world which is not concerned with a collection of boring non-islands.
It is possible that in the future we will see countries choosing to conduct military exercises in the region, as they attempt to prove to China just how ‘international’ the waters are. China will –as per usual- condemn such action, but nothing will be done. Duterte has not ruled up the option of bilateral negotiations with China, and as it becomes more obvious that China will not back down, this will be the option he –and most other countries in the area- will turn to. How successful these negotiations are likely to be can be questioned, though it is doubtful that they will lead to any permanent settlement.
Another party that plays an important role in this dispute is Taiwan, where the tribunal has provoked cross-party opposition. This is because it ruled that the Taiwanese-controlled Taiping Island (also know as Itu Abe) was not an inhabitable island but a ‘rock’. This island formed the basis of Taiwan’s claims on the region and it being deemed uninhabitable is a serious knock to Taiwan’s position. This also changes the way territorial claims work in the future – the ruling sets a precedent that countries can no longer use their control of uninhabited rocks as a way of staking claims to territory, though we will have to wait some time before we see the full effects of this.
So is the entire situation in the South China Sea completely irrelevant? Not quite. The South China Sea shows us just how confident China is becoming. In claiming such huge swathes of territory China shows us that they are not afraid of the USA and are determined to expand their influence, whatever it takes. Though this particular dispute will not lead to conflict, China will continue to expand their influence into different areas of the globe in the same manner. Eventually it is likely that they will attempt to expand into an area that the USA does deem crucially important, and if that happens then we can expect tensions to rise significantly.
So to conclude; no, disputes in the South China Sea will not lead to war. The usefulness of the area is to show us that we can expect similar disputes between China and the USA in other parts of the world as China continues to expand their influence. The tribunal ruled even the largest islands in the region to be ‘rocks’, and it is obvious that no party in this area wants to shed blood over such a pointless cause.