18.04.2024 Author: Taut Bataut

Rising Tensions in the South China Sea

Rising Tensions in the South China Sea

Since the onset of the 21st Century, tensions around the world have been simmering. Great power rivalry has reached to a new apex since the culmination of the Cold War. The rivalry between China and the United States is considered one of the most significant and appalling issues of the era. Given the importance of maritime trade, the South China Sea and the Southeast Asian countries have emerged as the strategic focus of the rivalry between the two sides. The world is currently divided into two key blocs, the Western and the Eastern bloc. Both sides are seeking to expand their influence over different smaller countries. The year 2024 opened with escalating tensions between both global powers. The situation is exacerbating between the two sides rapidly and if it is not managed effectively, it can result in a great catastrophe. The South China Sea is the center of focus of major global players due to the presence of geopolitical complexities in the region.

The conflicts in the South China Sea date back many centuries. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei are at loggerheads for their sovereignty over different islands of the South China Sea. All the nations hold historical claims over these islands, which are fueled by historical interpretations and tactical advantages. All five states have overlapping and sometimes divergent claims regarding these islands, which contributes to the continuation of these conflicts over decades. However, the rapid rise of China has further increased the tensions in the region. The United States is exploiting regional rivalries by siding with China’s regional rivals. On the other hand, China is also increasing its influence over the region and is making more vigorous claims over the disputed islands.

Aside from the rapid rise of China, the resources of the South China Sea are also a key reason behind the United States’ increasing interest in the region. The South China Sea holds massive economic potential, as the region produces around 12 percent of the global fish catch. Moreover, the region also has a significant amount of gas and oil reserves, estimated to be 190 trillion cubic feet and 11 billion barrels respectively. Annually, more than $3 trillion worth of trade goods pass through the South China Sea. This economic potential makes it one of the most valuable regions in the world. The United States’ participation in the regional rivalry has further intensified the predicament. Both the powers, China and the US, have also increased their naval presence in the region.

Both sides are bolstering their diplomatic efforts to influence regional countries. China is actively seeking to hamper US influence over the regional states. China seems to be successful in this campaign. A recent survey, published by the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute – shows that the majority of the regional population favors China over the United States. Chinese popularity has increased by 11 percent as compared to the previous year, according to this survey. However, Countries having territorial disputes with China are hostile to it and are siding with the US. China has published a new territorial map to warn the regional countries of the islands it considers its territory. However, some regional countries, especially Japan and the Philippines, are challenging China’s territorial claims under its newly published map.

Tensions between the Philippines and China have increased significantly in recent years. This has further aggravated tensions, which have bolstered chances of conflict between the two states. The United States is using this situation for its own benefit. Biden has recently reiterated Washington’s support for Japan and the Philippines. He particularly emphasized the security of the Philippines in his statement and mentioned the 70-year-old mutual defense agreement. This reinforcement by the US came in the wake of clashes between China and the Philippine coast guards in the disputed region. Although the clashes between the coast guards of the two countries in the dispute are a routine affair, Washington held the first trilateral summit, including the Philippines, Japan, and the US, to signal its support to the regional countries against China. Biden even announced the construction of a new economic corridor in the Philippines under the G7 partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment. He further stated at the summit that a great deal of global history will be written in the Indo-Pacific region in the future. The US is also mulling including Japan in the AUKUS partnership. This move is also motivated by Washington’s increasing competition with China and the latter’s surging influence in the region. Moreover, the US also seeks to face its declining stature due to its failed Ukraine and Gaza policies.

With the rising popularity of China in the region, the US is actively engaging with regional countries to secure its allies in the region. Biden’s recent visit to Vietnam, a promising market for the world, is also being seen as a part of this campaign. Over the years, the US partnership with Vietnam has increased. Last year, both countries signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This did not only deepen their economic and military cooperation but was also intended to counter rising Chinese influence in the region. Although China is still Vietnam’s largest trading partner and the two states are looking forward to establishing a “China-Vietnam Community with a shared future,” the move has infuriated China. This new deal between the US and Vietnam has posed a new diplomatic challenge for China. Beijing will have to renew its efforts to preserve Vietnam as a close ally in the future. The victory of the pro-US president in Taiwan has also enraged China, and the latter has intensified its rhetoric towards the former after the 2024 elections.

Overall, challenges for China are increasing in the South China Sea. China could face diplomatic as well as economic challenges due to the active engagement of the US with the regional states for the containment of China. On the other hand, this rivalry between the two global powers is also an opportunity for the regional countries to gain strategic and economic leverage through their balancing role. The rising popularity of China in the region demonstrates that the active engagement of the US is unable to foster desired results, and the former remains undeterred. However, China still needs to follow a prudent foreign policy toward regional countries to avoid their tilt towards the US. Moreover, the rising tensions and the proactive policies of the two global giants show that the region will be the epicenter of global conflict in the future. Therefore, shrewd diplomacy is required to avert a major clash in the South China Sea.


Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine  “New Eastern Outlook”.

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