The protracted trade war, accusation of the Covid-19 outbreak, and increasing military activities in the South China Sea had been intensifying a new conflict and the army confrontation between the USA and China; it would explicitly exacerbate the peaceful negotiations for regional stability and bilateral nexus. The course of animosity between both countries didn’t begin now; they’re recriminating one another for incessant trade war and novel Covid-19 to justify their stance at domestic and international level. China realistically claims the South China Sea (SCS) as an inalienable part of Chinese territory by exercising domestic maritime law over these disputed zones/islands. China vindicates its claim using various techniques by giving historical facts, reclaiming land, building infrastructure, militarizing the islands, using diplomatic influence, and legal instruments, but it would lead to nothing except triggering a severe military confrontation with the USA. Substantially, the territorial maritime disputes in the SCS are under serious consideration of the International community. The presence of massive hydrocarbon reserves, strategic location, important sea route for global trade, conflicting sovereignty claims of Islands, and the busiest sea lanes of communications in the sea, have encouraged all the regional states to consolidate their position against China to get maximum leverage.
The legality of Chinese claim and expansion of assertive Chinese influence in the South China Sea raised severe concerns for regional stability. To strengthen the territorial claims over SCS, China initiated an administrative project to build infrastructure over major islands like Spratly and Paracel Islands. Such Chinese provocative tactics are considered as a source of an increase in the military escalation in the South China Sea. This maritime region is strategically vital for world trade, and the USA perceived the Chinese assertiveness behavior and plausible geographical changes as a threat to American interests and its western allies. More specifically, China neither accepting the applicability of International law seas upon this particular region nor respecting the sovereign right of other ASEAN states to access SCS for exploration. The Chinese government is trying to consolidate its position by declaring two administrative regions/districts; additionally, Beijing’s military modernization in this maritime zone will strengthen the Chinese stance over the South China Sea.
The other claimants of these disputed islands are Southeast Asian countries, which are retaliating against illegal Chinese claim; it’s assumed that ASEAN members are blocking the negotiations to establish a maritime regulatory body in the South China Sea, they’re committed to convincing international organizations to take legal action against Beijing at regional and international level. In addition to this, the USA and Chinese relations are continued in the downward direction, because US administration is impeding the Chinese territorial claim over these contested areas. Moreover, the U.S. military consistently increased its navigation operations in China’s exclusive economic zones as allowed under the International law of seas. Such kind of activities led to a decrease in strategic military engagement and cooperation between both states. If the trade and technological war continued, then it’s inevitable that it would increase the military confrontation and strategic competition in the East Asian region. In case of any significant obstruction, China will fight back against the USA to justify its claim. To dislodge the American influence in the East Asian region, China could stretch its muscles by reorganizing the disputed islands to consolidate its position. Similarly, the USA would strive to use coercive and aggressive means to prevent Beijing from changing the status quo.
Furthermore, China deployed its military vessels to avert East Asian states Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines from exploring hydrocarbon resources; this turned into significant impasse between them. It seems conspicuous that conducting provocative military exercises, prevent regional states from using territorial water, and following aggressive stance against naval vessels would ultimately lead to an inevitable conflict in the region, which might undermine regional stability. The South China Sea, being one of the major maritime trade routes, could interrupt the global trade; almost $5.3 trillion worth of goods flow through the South China Sea annually, and approximately 40% of global natural gas pass through this route, which is quite a substantial volume. The South China Sea is considered one of the essential maritime trade routes, and most of the world’s major economies are dependent on this route for the trade. Approximately 64% of Chinese maritime trade transited through this waterway. Besides this, almost 42% of Japanese goods passed through this particular passage. The United States is also reliant on the South China Sea because 14% of its maritime trade passing through the region.
If Southeast Asian states decided to accommodate Chinese territorial claims over the South China Sea, Beijing could control East Asian nations’ access to these waters, which would give China an unprecedented amount of leverage against its neighbors, many of whom are U.S. treaty allies. Besides, it’s also apparent that through these coercive means, China is striving to change the balance of power in the East Asian region, and it could urge Russia to support Chinese territorial claim over the South China Sea against the USA and its allies. If Beijing relied on military modernization drive to achieve its strategic and geopolitical interests, then it would ultimately result in military confrontation and a new conflict zone between China and the USA. In short, the regional stability and security order could only be maintained by comprehensive diplomatic initiatives among the claimants. To avoid any serious conflict, a peaceful effort will assist both China and the USA to support their bilateral relations for regional stability.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of South Asia Strategic Research Center (GASAM)