• Matthew Norton

The South China Sea Dispute

Fiery Cross Reef, about 1sq mile in size, is at the center of a geopolitical

firestorm in the South China Sea. However, whether Fiery Cross Reef is the centre of the next WW3 or simply verbal spats between nations is yet to be determined. This article attempts to unpack the South China Sea dispute, which

countries are involved, what their motivations are, and answers the question to what extent does the development of Fiery Cross Reef benefit China?

The abundance of unowned natural resources is a primary reason why the South China Sea is such a contentious area. The development of Fiery Cross Reef gives China access to valuable natural resources. The South China Sea hosts a multitude of natural resources, such as oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This means that because so much is at stake, all nations surrounding the South China Sea are attempting a power grab in the region. If China can gain de facto control of the South China Sea, then those resources would be of major importance to stimulating China’s economy. The development of Fiery Cross Reef solidifies China’s 9 dash line, which the Chinese say is based on historical use but goes against UNCLOS (UN convention on the law of the sea) rules. China’s historical claim is also disputed, as it is a vague dotted line, made from shipping expeditions centuries ago. Furthermore, the development of Fiery Cross Reef means that surrounding countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan need to deal with an emboldened China. Overall, it is clear that the development of Fiery Cross Reef solidifies the Chinese claim which means they have access to valuable natural resources.

Another way that Fiery Cross Reef increases China’s presence in the South China Sea is the ability to fan out their military equipment across the region. They do this by using the “Cabbage” strategy. This involves using ships and other equipment to physically block islands from receiving shipments of supplies from their claimed country. This recently occurred in 2019, where Chinese ships surrounded Thitu island (which is administered by the Philippines). Many ships circled daily, and over 600 ships quarterly to block this island from receiving supplies from the Philippines. A ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China has not been enforced to date. This shows that China is not necessarily a fan of following the international courts, which sets a dangerous precedent for other countries in the region. Furthermore, China has been using military equipment from places like Fiery Cross Reef to approach fishermen from other nations, leading to near-violent encounters. Having equipment and personnel in the middle of this maritime dispute helps China respond to threats and to easily dominate their ocean rivals. In summary, the development of Fiery Cross Reef allows China to fan out their military in a more effective way.

This is from a video from Vox linked in the description - Red is the Chinese ships, blocking the yellow and green circles which are the other islands in the South China Sea.

However, it isn’t just China who is moving into the South China Sea - western nations, who have an even less claim to the South China Sea are moving in. This is shown by how military training by the United States, Australia, the UK, and other western nations are being conducted. These countries claim that they are protected under “Freedom of Navigation'' exercises but in reality, these exercises are often used to show off one countries’ equipment to deter the others. While the US claims that it is protecting its allies in the region, such as the Philippines from Chinese aggression, they have also implied they do not want to be heavily involved in the issue. China has also recently restarted military drills on the island and surrounding islands, in a bid to one-up their foes in the region.

The Maritime Silk Road is the red line, this is explained in the paragraph below

The Maritime Silk Road is a project that China has been working on for a few years now. Given how beneficial the Fiery Cross Reef is to China, the construction of the island is very beneficial to China’s position in the region. Gaining access to the full South China Sea, as the Fiery Cross Reef helps to do, could impact the entire Afro-Eurasian part of the world. The Maritime Silk Road currently contains most of South Asia, the Middle East, Kenya, Egypt, and Sudan. The plan is that these countries will lease ports to China, in return China provides economic opportunities to these countries through infrastructure projects. However, these ports will only be of use if China can solidify its grasp on the South China Sea, which the Fiery Cross Reef can only help to achieve. The Maritime Silk Road is a project which has major long term positive and negative implications. Many countries are saying this is one step closer to China becoming the world's biggest superpower and spreading their authoritarian instincts to other parts of the world, while China says it is just a way to build economic prosperity to countries that need it. What happens now in the South China Sea has major long term effects on the global geopolitical landscape.

Overall, there are many different perspectives as to where the conflict will be heading now - will we be looking at fewer tensions in the region, with a possibly more passive foreign policy by President Biden, or heightened tensions if both countries keep moving in on the region. Both possibilities have positive and negative aspects and it will be interesting to see where the conflict heads from here. All involved countries are weighing up geopolitical consequences in the region and seeing which way the winds are blowing in the region.


Image Citations




https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luTPMHC7zHY (4:55)

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