ATLANTA — As U.S. and Chinese warships increasingly play chicken, and China turns atolls and outcrops into militarized artificial islands, the South China Sea presents a stark picture of Sino-U.S. strategic competition . But China’s expansive assertion of offshore sovereignty not only challenges the territorial rights of others and free navigation on international sea lanes. It also threatens a central feature of the Southeast Asian ecosystem, and therefore the economic future of the region.
China has refused to subject its territorial claims to international scrutiny, even though six of the ten countries surrounding the South China Sea have claims to various rocks, shoals, reefs and resources within its 1.4 million square miles. China also ignored the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decision asserting the historic rights of the Philippines to the Spratly Islands and rejecting China’s outsized claim to around 90% of the South China Sea (based on the so-called nine-dash line).
For Southeast Asia’s 600 million people, the territorial crisis in the South China Sea is not a distant future concern. China’s actions are already harming maritime ecosystems and livelihoods in the region. This is the key lesson of the book Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground, by James Borton of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. Putting aside geopolitical considerations, Borton focuses on the ground truth: Chinese exploitation of the South China Sea threatens the future of the region through the ecological, environmental and economic damage it causes.
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