Michael Paul

A “Great Wall of Sand” in the South China Sea?

Political, Legal and Military Aspects of the Island Dispute

SWP Research Paper 2016/RP 08, July 2016, 25 Pages

China has set new records in the ways, means and speed with which it has expanded its outposts in the South China Sea. Neighbouring states such as Vietnam have also extended their bases on small islands and reefs, but they have done so over many years and not within a few months. The total surface area created by China has been ironically dubbed “The Great Wall of Sand” by the commander of the US Pacific Fleet. Despite Beijing’s claims to the contrary, the expansions signal an emerging militarisation of the South China Sea, whose plentiful resources and energy deposits have long been viewed as potential causes of conflicts.

The South China Sea is currently one of the world’s most contentious zones. But the situation risks becoming even worse, despite the fact that all of the region’s states depend on stable and secure sea lines of communication. At its core, this is a regional conflict about sea routes, territorial claims and resources that primarily involves ASEAN states and China. Nevertheless, it also has global repercussions. First, it concerns a “superhighway of the sea”, on which almost a third of the world’s sea trade is transported. Any impediment to the shipping traffic would have a direct impact on world trade in general but also particularly on Japan and South Korea. Second, the South China Sea is closely connected to the rivalry between Bejing and Washington because important allies and partners of the US are involved in the dispute about China’s territorial claims. Third, it is a conflict about international norms and laws that calls into question a fundamental principle of the liberal world order: “freedom of the seas” versus exclusive maritime zones. This study addresses the main reasons, the development and the implications of the island dispute as well as ways of containing it both regionally and internationally.

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