Contention And Conflict: Unraveling Geopolitical Intricacies Of South China Sea – Analysis

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The South China Sea, situated between the Southeast Asian mainland and the Far East, has become a focal point on the global stage due to its intricate history, complex territorial claims, and resulting geopolitical tensions.

Covering an expansive 3.5 million square kilometers, this sea serves not only as a pivotal maritime crossroads but also hosts numerous archipelagos, coral reefs, and waters rich in resources. Its strategic positioning facilitates international trade, with a considerable portion of global shipping traversing its expanse. The South China Sea is a focal point of complex geopolitical dynamics and heightened competition. Its rich fishery resources, constituting roughly 12% of global fish catch, are vital to the livelihoods of millions in the area. Furthermore, the untapped reservoirs of oil and natural gas are substantial, holding approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. These resources have the potential to contribute significantly to the prosperity and economic development of the countries bordering the sea.

Historical claims and territorial disputes in the region

The historical roots of disputes in the South China Sea extend back over centuries. Serving as a historical nexus for trade and cultural interchange, the region captivated the interests of diverse civilizations. From ancient empires to colonial powers, the South China Sea has borne witness to a sequence of claims, trade routes, and interactions that have laid the groundwork for the territorial contentions of today. Overlapping historical assertions and the vestiges of colonial legacies have compounded the intricate territorial challenges faced in the contemporary era.

In the modern context, the South China Sea holds profound geopolitical significance. It is believed to harbor substantial reservoirs of oil, natural gas, and fisheries, rendering it a valuable economic asset for the nations of the region. The sea’s maritime routes connect major economies, encompassing China, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN member states, thus solidifying its role as a linchpin in global trade. Gaining control over the South China Sea would bestow a country not only with economic benefits but also strategic leverage.

Within the South China Sea’s expanse lie overlapping territorial assertions by several nations, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. These contentions have spawned competing claims over islands, reefs, and other geographical features, each supported by its own historical, legal, and political rationale. Escalating tensions have been compounded by assertive actions, such as the creation of artificial islands, military buildups, and maritime incidents.

The maritime disputes of the South China Sea have attracted not only the immediate attention of the involved countries but also garnered global concern. Notable powers like the United States, Japan, and other nations with vested interests in the region have expressed apprehensions regarding potential destabilization and the ensuing ramifications for regional security. International organizations and legal frameworks, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), play a pivotal role in addressing the legal dimensions of these disputes.

Exploration and exploitation of natural resources

The South China Sea is marked by territorial disputes and increasing state rivalry, exemplified by actions like the United States freedom of navigation operations and China’s construction of artificial islands. Amidst these tensions, countries with territorial claims are getting caught in major power conflicts, leading to frequent incursions along maritime boundaries. These disputes have taken a toll on the region’s fishery resources, which are rapidly declining due to overexploitation.

Despite their critical role in the global food supply, fish stocks in the South China Sea have diminished significantly, with a reported 5% of the 1950s levels and a 66-75% drop over the last two decades. Compounding the crisis, the necessary habitat for fish recovery, such as coral reefs, is also declining due to destructive practices like giant clam harvesting and artificial island construction. This degradation forms a harmful cycle where illegal fishing accelerates resource depletion while eliminating the conditions for fishery sustainability. If not addressed, this fishery crisis could profoundly destabilize the Indo-Pacific region.

Collision Course: Gauging the Escalation Odds Between the South China Sea and Taiwan

The Chinese Communist Party regards the cyber domain as a crucial platform for conducting digital influence operations, which has sparked concerns among various international actors. China’s utilization of information manipulation to influence foreign and domestic audiences aligns with its military and political doctrine. This approach involves cyber and disinformation campaigns to achieve strategic objectives. China’s Strategic Support Force Network Systems Department oversees information warfare, encompassing psychological, electronic, and cyber warfare.

Notably, Taiwan is a prominent target, with an estimated 2,400 daily disinformation attacks aimed at undermining the island’s stability and promoting a more pro-China stance. China employs a three-pronged strategy in its disinformation campaign against Taiwan: generating original content disseminated via fake accounts, amplifying local content to reshape narratives, and using Taiwanese content farms connected to the mainland to elevate negative posts. These tactics reinforce divisions and differing opinions within Taiwanese society. The challenge of attributing these activities to China lies in the vagueness surrounding their origins, which magnifies China’s influence while creating ambiguity.

China’s disinformation efforts specifically target President Tsai Ing-wen. Instances include fabricating claims to undermine her credibility, exploiting domestic discontent, and manipulating stories to impose costs on her administration. The CCP’s aim is to weaken Tsai’s leadership, enhancing the prospects of a more pro-China political party. Although the full impact of China’s disinformation campaign is complex to measure, it contributes to eroding public trust in the government and exacerbating societal divisions.

Despite sustained disinformation campaigns, China’s political information warfare against Taiwan has largely failed, as pro-independence sentiment continues to grow. China’s attempts at peaceful reunification seem increasingly unlikely, especially given its handling of Hong Kong. It remains uncertain how long China will persist with peaceful efforts before considering other actions to achieve its strategic objectives.

Perilous Waters: Escalating Chinese-Philippine Confrontation Ushers in a Menacing Epoch

In the midst of the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea, a significant incident took place on August 5th. A Philippine ship, responsible for supplying a remote military outpost in the Spratly Islands, encountered obstruction by a group of Chinese vessels. Notably, two blue-hulled ships, potentially linked to a maritime militia, were present among the Chinese group.

The situation escalated when a Chinese coast guard vessel employed a water cannon against the smaller Philippine ship, an action with profound implications. Video evidence from the Philippines not only exposed the aggressive tactics of the Chinese vessels but also revealed a significant revelation: compelling proof of a connection between the Chinese military and a presumed maritime militia referred to as Beijing’s ‘little blue men.’ These blue-hulled ships, perceived as part of China’s multifaceted warfare strategy, raise compelling questions about China’s intentions and the role of non-state actors in maritime disputes.

Beyond the immediate clash, the incident’s impact extends regionally and globally. It intensifies existing tensions between China and the Philippines, introducing a new layer to the intricate web of South China Sea conflicts. The event highlights potential flashpoints in the region, underscoring the complex interplay of authority, influence, and strategic alignments. Moreover, the incident serves as a stark reminder of the delicate balance and how seemingly isolated incidents can swiftly escalate. The utilization of unconventional naval assets, like the suspected maritime militia, underscores the evolving nature of maritime disputes and emphasizes the need for a comprehensive understanding of the diverse entities and dynamics involved. 

South China Sea Geopolitics: A Bitter Lens on Contention and Conflict

The significance of the South China Sea surpasses its immediate boundaries, influencing broader geopolitical dynamics and representing a complex interplay of ambitions, obstacles, and opportunities. As a strategic battleground, it witnesses the calculated moves of major powers like the United States and China, each pursuing distinct strategies and objectives. The United States, utilizing agreements such as the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and Freedom of Navigation Operations, strives to maintain a power balance and uphold international law in the region.

China, on the other hand, employs assertive actions, military buildup, and territorial claims to advance its regional influence. Other regional players like Russia, Japan, and India, driven by vested interests, further complicate the multifaceted geopolitical scene. Shifting geopolitical currents offer insights into the potential trajectories of South China Sea disputes. The rise of nationalism, shifts in alliances, advancements in maritime technology, and changes in the global economy are key factors shaping the region’s future. The dynamics of the South China Sea are intertwined with broader shifts in global power and dominance.

Nevertheless, the South China Sea isn’t solely a site of contention; it also holds promise for cooperation and shared prosperity. While territorial disputes, environmental concerns, and piracy pose challenges, regional initiatives, collaborative development efforts, and security agreements offer transformative potential. The vision of transforming the South China Sea from a symbol of conflict into one of regional integration and cooperation is attainable.


The South China Sea holds a central position in both regional and global geopolitics, embodying a complex array of interests and intricate dynamics. Its direction ahead is not fixed, but rather adaptable, influenced by the decisions and actions of local and global players. To effectively navigate this multifaceted landscape, it’s crucial to comprehend the current state of affairs and identify chances for collaboration and shared successes. Successfully shaping the future of the South China Sea demands astute decision-making, thoughtful foresight, and an enduring dedication to maintaining peace and stability in the region.

About the authors:

  • Balinder Singh: Research Scholar and Academic. Ph.D. in Political Science, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, India. Dr. Singh has actively participated in numerous national and international conferences and has published over 20 research articles in esteemed international journals.
  • Prof. (Dr.) Jagmeet Bawa: Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala, India. Dr. Bawa brings with him a rich experience of 15 years in teaching and research. His expertise lies in the domains of Indian Political System and Central Asian Politics. Prior to his current position, he taught for a decade at I K Gujral Punjab Technical University, Jalandhar, India. Throughout his academic journey, he has guided ten students toward the successful completion of their Ph.D. degrees. Additionally, Dr. Bawa’s scholarly contributions extend to the realm of publications, with five books authored and over 30 research papers penned. His pursuit of academic excellence has taken him across various countries, where he has engaged in academic and research activities. Presently, his focus lies on Central Asian Politics, with four students currently pursuing their doctoral degrees under his guidance on this very subject.

Balinder Singh

Balinder Singh (PhD Scholar), Department Political Science, Central Univesity of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, India.

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