South China Sea a potential trigger for World War III

Once famed for its trade, plentiful fishing grounds, and vast quantities of oil and natural gas, the South China Sea is today more recognized as a chessboard in the conflict between the United States and China.

China’s maritime military buildup is happening at the cost of other countries in the area with competing territorial claims. The United States adds fuel to the fire by backing established friends and international norms.

1.35 Million Square Miles

It’s not easy to pinpoint an exact position for the South China Sea. Vietnam’s coastline shares this body of water with that of China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. That the sea’s boundary is shared by several nations is both its defining geographical characteristic and its primary source of conflict. All six nations lay claim to different areas of the ocean, and several also have territorial claims to the many islands, reefs, and shoals that dot the area.

The Paracel Islands are located to the north of the Spratlys and are closest to Vietnam, China, and Taiwan; the Spratly Islands are located to the east and are closest to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Until China’s recent actions, no country has actively pursued territorial claims in the South China Sea. China claims 90% of the 1.35 million square mile sea, whereas other nations in the area often claim just a small portion. And it has been much more forceful than any other nation in recent decades in driving out its neighbors.

Fake Islands, Court Rulings, and Lasers

The issue is exacerbated by the fact that most territorial claims in the South China Sea revolve on islands. Countries may assert sovereignty over an area of water up to 12 nautical miles from shore and can exercise EEZs up to 200 miles from land.

However, the South China Sea is devoid of major islands; the majority of the land there consists of atolls, islets, and shoals. Under international law, a government cannot legally claim ownership of a small island or peninsula that disappears entirely at high tide.

That hasn’t stopped China, which began sending dredging equipment out to sea in the early 2010s and has now turned some of the smaller land features into legitimate islands. By making use of neighboring seafloor, such as Mischief Reef (legally a low-tide elevation), Fiery Cross Reef (legally a rock), and Woody Island (legally a rock/island).

Beijing stated that the islands and the structures built on them were research outposts for the scientific community. One of the pieces of military hardware found in the area was a Chinese outpost on Woody Island that was reportedly equipped with surface-to-air missiles in 2016.