America and China Conflict Over the South China Sea

09.08.2022 in Research Paper
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In the Asian region, China’s rise to a regional power has led to the territorial disputes between itself, the USA, and neighboring states over the South China Sea. The issues began because of the territorial claims for some regions of the sea through a nine-dash line map. This conflict is the reoccurrence of a 20-year old dispute between the USA and China over the Mischief Island in the South China Sea. The Philippines took the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of Sea for a dispute resolution. After the court’s decision, China claimed that it was a sovereign state and that the court has no jurisdiction in this South China Sea dispute. Although the USA did not immediately become involved into the territorial disputes when China started to dredge sand to build artificial islands in the region, the US involvement policy was rather active. The United States has a strong stand that the sea is subject to the United National Law of Sea Treaty that allows both commercial and military ships to enter the area. Consequently, this move has fueled tensions in the region between the two nations, with a future possibility of an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the USA is committed to preventing China from creating an irreversible act of closing off a large part of the South Sea China and to preserving the freedom of navigation in this region. Finding a solution to the conflict requires the understanding of its background and the view of idealism and realism on the problem.

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Background on the Issue the South China Sea

The USA is quite worried about China’s move to construct artificial islands and increase its military presence in the South China Sea. The main concern here is that this construction will disrupt the global trade through the region and lead to the loss of trillions of dollars. The USA has greatly disapproved China’s actions since the sea is an international water route. Furthermore, the region is rich in natural resources such as fish stocks, hydrocarbon, natural gas, and oil (Fisher, 2016). On the other hand, China sees the expansion in the South of Sea as a long-term strategy for its economic survival and projection of power through trade and investment. Finally, the region will help the PRC to exercise its influence on the Asian region.

The South China Sea has almost 180 islands that include banks, reefs, shoals and islands. Several states in this region, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and Brunei have claims for these islands and territories (Mirski, 2015). However, many states want the region to remain international waters, with the USA given the freedom to conduct the Freedom of Navigation operations. Historically, the USA has acted as a policeman in the region by protecting this trade route (Mirski, 2015). Further, the claimant states demand to acquire and retain their rights to control shipping lanes, the exploration of natural gas and crude oil in the seabed and their rights to fish in the region (Mirski, 2015). Any state that gains the sovereignty of the South Sea China will be able to control trade to Northeast Asia and from or to China.

The claim of the South China Sea originates back to 1947 when the Kuomintang government drew the nine-dash line map. In this blueprint, China extends roughly 1,800 kilometers into the sea, an area off-equatorial Borneo to the Island of Hainan (Fenby, 2012). The Republic of China holds that this area is its integral part since thousands of years ago, regions were mapped and discovered by Chinese sailors during naval expeditions. This map shows a u-shaped line that covers 70% of the South China Sea. As the rightful owner, China reconstructs submerged land masses and turns coral reefs into artificial islands. The state does not acknowledge the EEZ zones of 200 miles off the shore that are underlined by the UN convention (Mirski, 2015). Altogether, China wants to use its traditional influence to increase its power in the region similar to the actions of the Western powers of in the past. Consequently, the expansion to the South Sea will enable China to assert its power over the ASEAN region.

The US Involvement in the South Sea China Dispute

Territorial competition is a core reason for the efforts of the USA and the Philippines to tame China’s desire for the ownership of the South China Sea. To reduce China’s sphere of influence in the region, the USA plans to construct a naval base on the Manus Island, which would allow to keep the sea an open trade route. According to the Department of Defense, the South China Sea is a strategic trade route for the US-traded goods, with the revenue amounting to about $1.2 trillion annually (Fisher, 2016). This reason is the main one for the United States to push this region to remain the international waters.

The USA has a large military base in the Philippines, its old ally back from the times of WW II according to the mutual defense treaty. This strategic position helps the United States monitor closely the Chinese developments in the region. While China erects structures in the South China Sea, conflicts are bound to begin. Therefore, the USA has the responsibility and obligation to balance any territorial disputes in the region and prevents military escalations (Mirski, 2015). As the biggest naval power and the largest economy in the world, the USA is in charge of promoting open sea lanes by policing this area.

The USA aims to curb China’s threat of becoming a major global powerhouse in Asia and in the world. In such a way, the United States seeks to protect its economic, security, and political interests in the South Sea. According to the Energy Information Agency of the United States, the region contains vast oil and natural gas deposits, and the Chinese ownership of these resources implies that this country will be the biggest energy exporter in the world (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). The region also has lucrative fisheries that constitute a significant part of the global stock (Fisher, 2016). Consequently, the USA involves itself in land reclamation and territorial claims through the support of ASEAN partners and conducting FONOPs. Finally, China is also tested to see if it can operate under the liberal order that has promoted prosperity and peace in the world.

The Attitude of Realism and Idealism Toward the Struggle for the South China Sea

The UN convection ruling holds that China’s claims for the resources, features, and areas of the South Sea through the dash-line do not conform to the UNCLOS laws. At the same time, the Philippines has a legal right to claim the resources of the South Sea maritime zones (Fenby, 2012). Nevertheless, China disagrees, thus refusing to cooperate and accept the arbitral results. Without a doubt, such an attitude shows that China will not abandon its claims. Realists would claim that China is willing to start a war in case the Philippines and other countries dare to challenge the occupation of the sea by military means. China is determined to reclaim and defend the islands aggressively. Clearly, this bold move by the PRC is similar to the past moves by big Western powers that also defied international laws (Tzogopoulos, 2016). Therefore, China looks for its own way to preserve international security interests.

Such countries as the Philippines, which had widely pressed China on the issue, eventually started to collaborate with it. According to president Duterte, the Philippines has a weaker military force against China, a powerful nation in terms of economy and military capability (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). Furthermore, the future of the Philippines lies in the Asian region; thus, any war will affect this nation immensely. On the other hand, president Duterte argues that the USA needs the Philippines for its naval base, for the maintenance of ships, resupply, recuperation of crews, and power projection (Tzogopoulos, 2016). In this case, if the Philippines turns economically and diplomatically to China, the nation would benefit in all regards. Consequently, president Duterte will negotiate for sharing and access to resources as well as a joint development venture for gas and oil. However, if the Philippines starts a war, this dispute over waters will present a principal challenge of peace and stability in the future. Moreover, lack of jurisdiction to enforce the recent order of the Permanent Court of Arbitration means that China will establish calmness in the region (Tzogopoulos, 2016). Therefore, nations must practice restraint in this matter to avoid confrontations.

Idealists would consider the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration as beneficial for the Philippines as opposed to China. Beijing should comply with the court’s decision on how countries are supposed to behave internationally (Tzogopoulos, 2016). In this case, China is supposed to respect international laws since it is a world leader and a responsible nation (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). On the issue of the non-dash line, the map is an invalid move by China to claim the territories in South Sea China as well as a violation and a provocative stance for the international norms that can make the USA confront China. Nonetheless, if the USA chose to enforce a jurisdiction on the South Sea China by force, the Asian region would be divided due to conflicts (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). Any military actions would prove tragic for the region and world peace in general.

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The outcome of the dispute between China and the USA will largely influence the future developments in the South China Sea. This issue also raises the debates and discussion of double standards and legal norms in accordance with the decisions of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. If the sides act in accordance with the ideas of realism in solving the dispute, the outcome might either be a better life for them or a war, while idealism in actions will jeopardize peace and serve public diplomacy. Still, China uses small incremental steps that are unlikely to evoke a military response against the USA or any claimants. Nevertheless, the US-China relationship in the dispute makes it clear that the sides will try to avoid such a development of the situation that might lead to a full-blown military conflict.

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