Contested Waters: The South China Sea

China redrew its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on 23 November 2013 which immediately raised its neighbors’ mistrust. China showed its firm intention to control the region of the East China Sea. This news was sensationally handled and spread worldwide. China also requires all foreign vessels to obtain permission to fish or survey in the South China Sea, valid from January 2014.[1] This Chinese decision really seriously concerns the Asia Pacific region, the United States and also Europe.

The area requiring permission covers more than half of the South China Sea. Territorially contested areas between China and Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries are unilaterally included in this region. Who violates this Chinese rule is punished by Chinese law. The Chinese local authorities demonstratively made a drill with some ships and border patrol personnel.[2]

Besides the richness of submarine resources like natural gas and oil, the South China Sea is one of the most important sea lanes in the world. The Strait of Malacca links Asia and the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and America. One third of the world trade volume and half its oil transportation pass through this strait.[3] Transportation of oil from the Middle East or import and export goods to/from China, Japan and South Korea have to pass through this important bottleneck between Indonesia and Malaysia (e.g., about 80% of oil imports to Japan and China).[4] China is building pipelines and highways connecting Thailand, Myanmar (already in operation) etc., yet China as the second largest oil import nation after the US is uneasy about the persistent American presence in the South China Sea. The US has total control of the Malacca Strait, and consequently China fears potential disturbance of its oil transports, particularly when conflicts over Taiwan should arise. There is a bypass used instead of passing through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea: the Lombok Strait (between Bali and Lombok), where due to their depth only very and ultra large tankers can pass. But using this bypass could still not resolve China’s problem because its ships have to pass through US alliance controlled waters anyway to reach the Chinese coast. For Japan, the Lombok Strait route requires about three days more travel time.[5] This would entail an oil price increase and consequently suppress the economy and burden people’s lives. Besides, there might also exist some danger of disturbance near the Bashi Channel (between the Philippines and Taiwan). Chinese submarines stationed on Hainan naval base might pass through this channel to access the Pacific. Taiwanese and Japanese vessels could be intercepted both through the Bashi Channel and from the East China Sea. As for the US trade, the Strait of Malacca is also pivotal, and trade goods from/to Europe are also affected in case of instability in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea is constantly threatened by piracy. Since terrorists’ actions became more aggressive, the danger of hijacking oil/gas tankers or vessels carrying radioactive waste has risen.

China’s South Asian neighbors started to enhance their military capabilities against China’s aggressive expansion. Vietnam should possess six submarines by 2016, bought from Russia; Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore plan to enhance their respective submarine forces; and Thailand and Myanmar are establishing a submarine force.[6] Despite these countermeasures, China’s military power is most likely growing and expanding. Nevertheless, the Asian countries possessing submarines at least deter Chinese navy actions. Since China’s military power is outstanding in this region, the ASEAN and other neighbor nations have to work together and try to convey their determination that China’s unilateral application of its laws over the region is not tolerated. It is important ­ to avoid incidents among the allied nations patrolling this region ­ to conclude an agreement (if not already done) that exactly designates the areas the respective allies are responsible for. Patrolling and alerting so many submarines in such a small region, where the EEZs (exclusive economic zone = 200 nautical miles) overlap and so many commercial vessels including oil/gas tankers pass, is paramount to avoid accidents. In addition, the danger of terrorist attacks and piracy should also not be forgotten. A small, inconspicuous incident could cause an avalanche of serious problems to the whole world. The Asian Regional Forum (ARF) started in 1994, and the 26 countries (Taiwan is excluded because of China’s objection) including the ASEAN nations and the EU join today in this forum. ARF does not have any legally binding statutes; however, it would be a good opportunity to take a step to develop further the ARF.


[1] Asahi Shinbun: Chugoku, Minami Shinakai deno Gyogyounado Kyokasei ni, Gaikokusen ni gimuzuke, January 11, 2014. [Accessed January 12, 2014].

[2] The Guardian: US condemns ‘provocative’ Chinese edict over South China Sea fisheries, January 10, 2014. [Accessed January 12, 2014].

[3] Richardson, Michael: The United States, Asia and the War against Maritime-related Terrorism. International Symposium on Security Affaires 2004. The National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo, Japan. [Accessed January 12, 2014].

[4] Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC): Sekiyuyusou no Seimeisen Malacca Strait Koukou. Analysis.Vol.40. No.6, 2006.11. [Accessed January 26, 2014].

[5] Ibid.

[6] The New York Times: The Submarine Race in Asia, January 7, 2014. [Accessed January 19, 2014].

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