There are reports that China has placed surface to air missile batteries in the Woody Island, a link in the chain of Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Woody Island has been claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. However, the island is under the control of China since 1974. Islands and rock formations in the South China Sea are subject to claims by number of surrounding countries. However, to strengthen its claims China has been extending its coastline by building on reefs and rock formations. The US, Australia and Vietnam have accused China of militarizing the region. However, China has hit back by saying that US is the main reason for the militarization of this region. It should be noted here that recently a US naval ship sailed close to the disputed area in the South China Sea. It is also significant to note that this region witnesses around 5 trillion dollar worth international trade passing through it annually.
Some experts argue that China’s spectacular economic rise accompanied by its increased military strength and spending is the real concern for the rest of the world, especially the US. China, too, is willing to push western countries out from the western Pacific Ocean. However, Philippines and Vietnam are not happy with the recent increased Chinese assertion. China, however, defends this action citing historical connections. But, this has certainly raised concerns among other countries.
Roughly, 12 nautical miles from the coast is considered as sovereign zone of any country. According to UNCLOS, 200 nautical miles is considered as EEZ. However, the problem here is that China, Vietnam and Philippines have a concept called as Territorial Sea, which means whatever their claims are no country can enter into this zone, be it military or civilian vessels. And this is the problem for international trade. International vessels going through this region have to take the permission of these countries.
Why is the United States so interested in what goes on in the South China Sea?
Officially, the United States holds that freedom of navigation is important. But, few experts argue that US is doing all these things just to suppress China. Fundamentally the United States will not allow a challenger to replace it, either regionally or globally.
Why does China want to control the South China Sea?
Control of the South China Sea would allow China to dominate a major trade route through which most of its imported oil flows. It would also allow China to disrupt, or threaten to disrupt, trade shipments to all countries in East and Southeast Asia — as well as deny access to foreign military forces, particularly the United States. The floor of the South China Sea may contain massive oil and natural gas reserves. Sovereignty over the region could give China a level of energy security and independence far beyond what it currently possesses.
The dispute between the United States and China is likely to escalate to some degree. U.S. Pacific Command planners are preparing to sail and fly again within 12 nautical miles of areas that China claims as sovereign territory. However, China has stated that it will defend what it considers its territorial limit. If the Chinese government blinks, it could suffer domestically due to the loss of face for the Communist Party. If the United States wavers, it will risk perpetuating the impression, among U.S. partners and allies, that it lacks resolve in light of its policy in the Middle East, Iraq and Ukraine. The stakes are high for both sides, as is the risk of a miscalculation. The United States is marshaling major allies in the region to take a role, in the hope that the combined weight of U.S., Japanese and Australian forces will give China pause.