Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, July 15, 2016

Backgrounder on China and the South China Sea conflict

Unless this conflict escalates, it's not likely to be a major topic for comparative politics, but it's good to get a basic understanding of the issues. Max Fisher, writing in The New York Times does a good job in this article.

The South China Sea: Explaining the Dispute
After an international tribunal in The Hague ruled emphatically against China in a territorial dispute with the Philippines, many Chinese state media outlets responded on Wednesday by publishing a map. It showed the South China Sea, with most of the waters encircled with the “nine-dash line” that has long represented its claims there.

This week’s ruling may have delivered a sweeping victory in court to the Philippines… But it has only escalated the larger dispute, which involves several Asian nations as well as the United States…

What follows is an explanation of why this body of water is considered such a big deal, and why it may be a harbinger of global power politics in the decades ahead.

1. What is the dispute about?

At its most basic level, this a contest between China and several Southeast Asian nations over territorial control in the South China Sea, which includes some of the most strategically important maritime territory on earth…

This is also about whether China will comply with international laws and norms, which Beijing sometimes views as a plot to constrain the country’s rise…

2. What does this week’s ruling mean?

The tribunal ruled almost categorically in favor of the Philippines… It also said China had broken international law by endangering Philippine ships and damaging the marine environment.

Maybe most important, the tribunal largely rejected the nine-dash line that China has used to indicate its South China Sea claims…

But while the ruling is considered binding, there is no enforcement mechanism… Whether China chooses to defy or comply with that pressure, though, could help to shape its place in the international community…

3. What is the ‘nine-dash line’?

This little line has shown up on official Chinese maps since the 1940s (it began with 11 dashes). It demarcates a vast but vague stretch of ocean from China’s southern coast through most of the South China Sea…
For China, the line represents long-lost historical claims that the country, after two centuries of weakness, is finally strong enough to recover. For the other nations, the line is a symbol of what they characterize as a naked power grab by China.

4. Why is the South China Sea so important?

The United States Energy Information Agency estimates there are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the sea… The waters also contain lucrative fisheries… The area’s greatest value is as a trade route…

5. Why does it matter who controls those trade routes?

This gets to a core contradiction in the South China Sea dispute: It is driven by territorial competition, yet all countries involved want open sea routes. Everyone benefits from the free flow of goods between Asia and the rest of the world, and everyone suffers if that is disrupted…

[T]he Chinese… suspect that the global status quo is engineered to serve Western interests first. So it is hardly surprising that China is seeking greater control over waterways it relies on for economic survival…

6. So this is about China’s rise?

China sees itself as a growing power that has a right to further its interests in its own backyard, just as Western powers have done for centuries…

Something Americans often miss is that for China, this is in part defensive. The history of Western imperialism looms large. Chinese leaders often distrust the United States’ intentions, and consider their country to be the far weaker party…

7. Why is the United States so involved in this?

The United States has a treaty obligation to the Philippines… As the world’s largest economy, it also has a real interest in maintaining open sea lanes — and, as the world’s biggest naval power, it often assumes the role of policing them. Plus, as the world’s only superpower, the United States often acts as a balancer in regional disputes.

But this is also, for Washington, about shaping what sort of major power China becomes.

American officials insist that they do not oppose China’s rise. Their concern is whether China will work within what scholars call the liberal order — the postwar system of international laws and institutions — or seek to overturn it…

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