The South China Sea (SCS) constitutes a region highly prone to inter-state escalation and conflict. It harbours perhaps the most significant set of international territorial disputes, fuelled by states’ competing national interests. While other regions have developed relatively secure environments and reduced military expenditure, the littoral states of the SCS have increased military expenditure by 50% in the last 10 years alone. Hence, there is considerable concern that the region will be subject to wider security destabilization.
The SCS encompasses a territory of nearly 3.5 million square kilometres, stretching from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to Strait of Taiwan. The region constitutes a massive potential of wealth to those who control its oil, natural gas, and fishing arenas. Moreover, it is host to perhaps the most significant global shipping lanes in the world. Connecting Southeast Asia with the Western Pacific, the SCS hosts more than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic. Securing the commercial flows in the SCS is only one component of the more general issue of regional security. States seek to maximize their security and sovereignty, while acting to minimize the political leverage other states can exert against them. Strategies vary depending on whether states believe they can best protect their interests by either a) allying with major military powers (i.e. the U.S.) that ensure collective regional security, or b) orienting their military toward either access denial capabilities or their own power projection capabilities.
Tensions have been high ever since the end of World War II and led to violent clashes resulting in numerous casualties such as between Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China both in 1974 and in 1988. Especially in recent years, with increasing energy demands from the growing Asian economies, the dispute intensified. In January 2013, the Republic of the Philippines announced its intent to file a petition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration under UNCLOS statutes against the People’s Republic of China’s claims in the SCS. In October 2015, the Court declared its competency to act as a registrar in the ongoing dispute settlement, whose outcome, however, will not be legally binding. In April 2015, satellite images revealed increased Chinese construction activities on the disputed Spratly Islands. In order to reaffirm freedom of navigation in the region, the U.S. commenced military manoeuvres in October 2015, causing severe diplomatic tensions between both permanent members of the UN Security Council.