News Excerpt
Recently China renamed 80 islands in the South China Sea. Later in the month, the US warships entered the waters near Spratly and Paracel Islands, off the coast of Malaysia.

South China Sea Dispute
•    The South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, is subject to several overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
•    It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels’ and the Spratlys’ - two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.
•    Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
•    China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea—and the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonized competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. As early as the 1970s, countries began to claimislands and various zones in the South China Sea, such as the Spratly Islands, which possess rich natural resources and fishing areas.

    Following the recent establishment of new administrative districts on both Spratly and Paracel Islands, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Civil Affairs jointly announced that the Chinese government had “named” 80 islands, reefs and other geographical features around the two archipelagos with Chinese names.
    The last time China had unilaterally engaged in a similar initiative was in 1983 where 287 geographical features had been renamed in the disputed chain of islands.
    In another incident a Vietnamese fishing vessel, with eight fishermen onboard was rammed and sunk by the Chinese vessel near the Paracel Islands. The incident marks the second time in less than a year where a Vietnamese fishing vessel has been reportedly sunk by a Chinese vessel near the China-controlled Paracel.
    Following China’s renaming of the islands, the US sent in an assault ship and a guided missile cruiser into the waters near Spratly and Paracel Islands, off the coast of Malaysia. Soon after, Chinese and Australian warships also entered the fray.

    In recent days, China has conducted military drills and deployed large-scale military assets to the maritime area, while officially celebrating strides made in exploiting disputed energy resources in the sea.
    There have been incidents involving Chinese fishing vessels and the Chinese Coast Guard with Indonesian fishing vessels in waters around the Natuna Sea as well. China’s illegal fishing near the Natuna Sea carries global consequences, reminding regional governments of Beijing’s expanding claims to the South China Sea through which one-third of the world’s maritime trade flows.
    It seems as though the COVID-19 outbreak in China did little to diminish the country’s strategy of regional expansion. Routine operations of transport aircraft in the South China Sea indicate that the Chinese military is hardly affected by the country’s health crisis.
    Vietnam has been an ardent supporter of the U.S.’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) carried out in the South China Sea. China has always taken a strong stand against these FONOPS of the U.S. It has flexed its muscles to match up to these operations.
    The arrival of American warships and the US’s presence may only serve to heighten tensions. The US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, but is known to send its naval force into the waters each time there are provocative developments in the waters, particularly angering China.

As China seeks to restore its global credibility, creating tensions in the South China Sea should be the least of its priorities. A more generous China during a global pandemic might go a long way in ensuring its global ascent. But that’s a hope that has been belied many times in the past and it’s unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party would let go of its regional security agenda of expansion.

Spratley and Paracel Islands, Senkaku island dispute, UNCLOS, Nine Dash Line