Jakarta, IO – Tensions in the South China Sea are heating up. Record breaking incursions by Chinese jets and warships into Taiwanese territory, military exercises which simulate an invasion, and to top it off China’s Foreign Minister was abruptly dismissed in a move shrouded in mystery.
The regional security situation is rapidly deteriorating, and Southeast Asian powers could soon be caught in the crossfire.
But Taiwan is hardly the only country where China is ramping up hostilities. The Chinese coastguard recently attacked Philippine supply boats which were on their way to resupply one of their bases in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Yet even this is not an isolated incident – China has also recently aggressively targeted boats belonging to Vietnam and Malaysia, two of the five ASEAN nations that dispute China’s claim to the entirety of the South China Sea.
These escalating tensions are ultimately driven by China’s claim to the whole South China Sea, using it’s so-called “nine dash line”, which in 2016 was rejected by an international tribunal court in The Hague. Yet since then China has not backed down, and in recent years has even constructed dozens of manmade islands which are slowly being militarized.
This is a problem. The South China Sea is one of the most vitally important shipping lanes in the world – a third of global maritime trade, or $3.37 trillion worth of goods, pass through each year. For China, 80% of its energy imports come through the area, as well as 39% of its total trade.
But trade aside, it’s access to lucrative and dwindling natural resources that really drive these competing claims. Whoever has control of the South China Sea controls access to one of the richest and least developed fossil fuel reserves in the world – beneath the seabed lie billions of barrels worth of oil and hundreds of trillions of cubic feet’s worth of natural gas.
Yet, no one from Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam can agree on who it belongs to, leaving various ASEAN nations vulnerable to China hostility.
For example, Malaysia has faced increased diplomatic and military pressure from China over its development of the Kasawari gas field, estimated to contain 3 trillion feet of recoverable gas assets. And Vietnam, who faced deadly clashes with China in the 1970’s and 80’s, still encounters collisions and stand offs between Vietnamese vessels and Chinese oil surveyors.