A person could be forgiven for being baffled by the headlines out of Southeast Asia. His eyes must glaze over at the litany of strangely evocative and unfamiliar names: Scarborough Shoal, Half Moon Shoal, Macclesfield Bank, Reed Bank, Subi Reef, the Spratlys and Paracels. Not only do such places not constitute full-fledged islands, they are so small and often below water for so many hours per day that they are merely labeled as "features" in the hotly contested South China Sea. Thitu Island, for instance, is so small that its runway — less than a mile long — is built partly on reclaimed land. And yet Thitu (also known as Pagasa) is the second-largest island in the Spratlys. Tiny, in many cases submerged during high tide and often lacking fresh water sources of their own, these features have become the objects of stout naval competition, leading to bellicose language from foreign ministries throughout the region. Is war about to break out over bare rocks?
I don't think so. I also don't think the world has gone mad. The experts calmly tell us that the whole drama is about maps with conflicting claims that in recent years have been published by various governments in the region. But there are deeper reasons for the rise in tensions, reasons that explain much about the true nature of our early-21st-century world.
First, the features mean little in and of themselves, but ownership of them advances claims to adjacent waters where substantial quantities of oil and natural gas may lie beneath the sea floor. Again, we have experts arguing convincingly in scholarly papers that the amount of hydrocarbons in the seabed has been exaggerated and does not constitute enough for any of the littoral states to become an energy-producing nation in its own right. But that is not what officials in the littoral states actually believe. In one country after another in my research, I have come upon officials who provide the same refrain: We are a poor country, and we need whatever energy does exist down there for our development. The oil is ours, not theirs. Everywhere I travel, I come upon the fear of missing out on great riches and development.
Second, the current tension in the South China Sea is really about the rise of China. For roughly 150 years, China was internally weak: There was the slow collapse of the Qing Dynasty, civil war featuring regional warlords, World War II occupation by Japan, civil war again between nationalists and communists and finally the vast depredations wrought by Mao Zedong. But recently, after three decades of peaceful economic growth, China is for the moment strong enough to project power beyond its borders, and the South China Sea is a blue-water extension of China to the same degree that the Caribbean is to the United States and the Black Sea to Russia. Thus, China is now claiming the bulk of the supposedly energy-rich South China Sea, and other nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines are pushing back.
The South China Sea will most likely be with us for years ahead as a bronze medalist in the news behind Middle Eastern turmoil and European financial chaos.
Third, there is the rise and consolidation of other nations, too. During the Cold War, Vietnam, the Philippines and what is now Malaysia were wracked internally by irregular "small" wars that went on for years. The surrounding seas were ignored only because these nations were just so weak and divided that they had no possibility of projecting power outward. Now that they all are more or less at peace, they can exert themselves beyond their waters to potentially energy-rich seas. (The Philippines may still have low-level insurgent groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the New People's Army, but the level of fighting cannot be compared to the large-scale, communist Hukbalahap Rebellion of the 1940s and 50s.)
Fourth, there is the rise of navies. Capitalist development leads to military acquisitions. (The poverty-afflicted Philippines is an exception.) Navies especially can be an economic luxury. Building one often means a state is secure enough on land to venture beyond it. This defines the Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Singaporean realities nicely. So you have a newly risen China, along with a newly risen Vietnam and other states, competing with new navies over energy-rich seas.
Fifth, there is the stubborn persistence of nationalism — something that often gets lost or is denied outright in an elite media environment that advances globalization and universal values. Nationalism may have become the preserve of the working class in the United States and may have gone out of fashion for some decades in Europe, but in Asia, nationalism is healthy and vibrant. The passions evinced over territorial rights in the South China Sea are an expression of that. To be sure, Chinese scholars in Beijing have told me that their nation should theoretically be willing to compromise over its claim to most of the South China Sea, as expressed in the so-called nine-dash line. But because of nationalistic sentiment inside China itself, China's leaders will probably be unable to do so. In fact, the primordial quest for status still determines the international system, and these bare rocks in the South China Sea have become, in effect, logos of nationhood, as states posture on the world stage in an all-encompassing global media environment.
Sixth, there is the general rise in sea traffic, which is an aspect of globalization. In this regard, the South China Sea constitutes the throat of international commerce. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two-thirds of South Korea's energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan's and Taiwan's energy supplies, and 80 percent of China's crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. Whereas in the Persian Gulf only energy is transported, in the South China Sea you have energy, finished goods and unfinished goods. In other words, the South China Sea — in addition to what it itself might possess beneath the seabed — is extremely strategic for what passes through it. Thus, China and the United States both have a deep interest in dominating it.
Can anything stop this narrative from developing further? Will sparring matches over islands and bare rocks between rival navies continue for years, becoming even more confrontational? The likely answer is that the South China Sea will be with us for years ahead as a bronze medalist in the news behind Middle Eastern turmoil and European financial chaos. The fate of the South China Sea story actually lies for the most part with China. If China's naval and air power keeps gradually increasing as it has for nearly two decades, forcing the United States to provide more support for a treaty ally like the Philippines and a de facto ally like Vietnam, then the South China Sea will intensify as a region of conflict. Theoretically, the conflicting legal claims can be solved by negotiation. But they probably won't be because the issues involved are too complex, and the power imbalance between China and its individual neighbors is too great. Therefore, perhaps the only development that can dramatically assuage tensions would be a political-economic crisis of such magnitude in China that it leads to declining defense budgets in Beijing — inhibiting the Chinese navy's ability to project power. China will have crises galore, and they will be profound, but one of such magnitude that also adversely affects defense budgets is unlikely.
Given these realities, the United States must steer between two extremes. It must provide enough air and naval presence in the region to prevent China from "Finlandizing" other littoral nations, so as to preserve the balance of power in the Western Pacific. But given its many considerable and varied equities with China, the United States must not allow itself to be dragged into a conflict with Beijing as a consequence of the emotional nationalisms of Vietnam and the Philippines. Since the Peloponnesian War, history has been replete with large powers being tragically drawn into conflicts by smaller, faraway allies. Alas, these rocks and shoals contain dangers for Washington, too.