As a rat scampers across the deck, the crashing of the waves violently rocks the floor. Lieutenant Mangidia, grabs onto the rusty side rails and hears one of his men heaving last night’s dinner into the ocean. He carefully steps over the cratered deck and pats the crewmember on his back. As Lieutenant Mangidia glances up, he spots the glistening beam of two brand new Chinese ships, coasting around the Sierra Madre like predatory sharks. The other nine members on the ship acknowledge their presence and collectively drone out a sigh of frustration.
The Sierra Madre, from an outsider’s point of view, seems like nothing more than a rusting World War II remnant. To the Philippines, it is much more. In order to assert their claims on the Second Thomas Shoal, the Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded near that area in 1999. The Sierra Madre houses 10 Philippine Marines, who stay on the ship at all times to protect a nearby island. This island, known as the Pagasa Island, has one of the few aircraft landing strips in the South China Sea. It is also home to several hundred citizens of the Philippines and it is the only island in the South China Sea with a permanent population. Even though the crew members of the Sierra Madre face morale issues and the citizens of Pagasa Island are in constant fear of imminent war, they know that their role is vital. The Pagasa Island and the Sierra Madre are two important, yet fragile, frontlines between the Philippine’s claim on the Second Thomas Shoal against China.
There are many island disputes in the Asian region; however, the South China Sea dispute has increased in tension dramatically in the early parts of 2016. This tension comes from both international and regional disputes. Depending on who you ask, the South China Sea can be referred to as the East Sea (Vietnam) or the West Philippine Sea (Philippines). Countries such as China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Brunei have laid claims to some or the entire part of South China Sea. These countries base their claims on historical maps, landmarks, decaying ships (like the Sierra Madre), proximity, UN Conventions, and more. In 1974, China went to war with Vietnam for control over the Paracel Islands, which led to the deaths of over 70 soldiers. Since then, there hasn’t been any major battles fought over the area. Although the South China Sea is home to hundreds of small islands and coral reefs, it has no indigenous people. So, what could possibly be the cause of all this commotion?
One of the biggest advantages of having a legitimate claim to the South China Sea is that the location is strategically important. Not only does the South China Sea link the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, it is also an important shipping channel. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet pass through these waters. Countries such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China receive their energy supplies through ships that cross into the South China Sea. The South China Sea is also important for militaristic purposes in that manner as well.
The next big advantage is obvious! The South China Sea is rich in energy reserves, although the amount of energy reserves varies on the expert you ask. One estimate from the US Energy Information Administration is that there is approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Even though the amount of barrel of oils might seem significant, it could only power China’s energy needs at an estimated range of three years. The bigger resource in dispute is the natural gas deposit since it could possibly power China for ten times the previous suggested amount.
The final big advantage of the South China Sea is that 10% of the world’s fishing is conducted in this body of water. Millions of fishermen are employed in this region, but regional disputes have also led to conflict. One of the biggest examples was back in 2012 when the Philippine Navy found a Chinese vessel fishing in the area. The Philippines were trying to stop the illegal fishing when two Chinese surveillance ships blocked the Philippine Navy’s access.
The South China Sea is just one of the few disputes that China is currently dealing with. Other issues such as their claims on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Senkaku or Diaoyutai Islands are on China’s agenda. With the international limelight on the South China Sea dispute, a sign of weakness on their claims to the South China Sea might become a slippery slope to the aforementioned claims. The international community has been voicing their concerns over the South China Sea and most of it has been aimed directly at China. At the end of a recent G-7 meeting in Hiroshima, the leaders expressed their concerns and had a “strong opposition to any intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.” Even though China was not explicitly mentioned in this statement, China reacted to it as if addressed to them by stating that the disputed claims in the region were “exaggerated.”
Christian Kim is a 2L at the University of Baltimore School of Law and graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice. He currently serves as the President of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association as well as the 2L Rep for the Student Bar Association. His interests are East Asian politics, international conflicts, and human rights. Before Law School, Christian has worked for the Korean Ministry of Education as a TaLK (Teach and Learn in Korea) Scholar and Coordinator for two years. He is currently a legal intern at the Hermina Law Group and a law clerk for the Law Office ofHayley Tamburello.