What's At Stake In The South China Sea Beijing has claimed the trade route in the South China Sea as an "exclusive economic zone," which the its neighbors in Southeast Asia, as well as the U.S., dispute. Marvin Ott, scholar with Johns Hopkins University, talks about China's strategy and what's at stake in the contested area.

What's At Stake In The South China Sea

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Crucial trade routes cross the waters of the South China Sea and huge deposits of oil and gas may lie beneath the ocean floor below. But the area also lies at the heart of an international dispute. China claims all of the South China Sea, in the same strong terms it uses to assert claims to Taiwan or Tibet. Half a dozen other countries, though, have conflicting claims. And over the past few months, the United States has weighed in on their side, which has prompted angry words from Chinese officials.

Here to describe how an obscure maritime dispute might erupt into a crisis is Marvin Ott, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a visiting research scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MARVIN OTT (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): My pleasure.

CONAN: And why is this so important?

Mr. OTT: Well, you mentioned the trade routes. They're not only major trade routes, they're, in fact, the world's most valuable trade routes, in terms of - if you measure trade by the value of the product that goes through, why, this are the busiest trade routes in the world. In addition to that, they're strategic. This is, the U.S. 7th Fleet traverses the same trade routes on a regular basis.

CONAN: So this would lead from the Straits of Malacca, through the archipelago there, on the way to Japan. All that oil, for example.

Mr. OTT: Exactly. For your listeners envisioning a map, you start, as you say, in Southeast Asia, Straits of Malacca, go north, up through the South China Sea, towards Japan, towards Korea, and then you have the routes across the Pacific.

CONAN: And there are, in the South China Sea, groups of, well, islets and reefs, the Spratlys...

Mr. OTT: Atolls.

CONAN: ...and the Paracels. These are very tiny islands.

Mr. OTT: Right.

CONAN: Most of them underwater at high tide.

Mr. OTT: Underwater or very close to it. And for most of history, have played no role whatsoever. There is only one of these myriad atolls, reefs and whatnot that, under international law, has standing in the sense that there is a fresh water source. So it could provide sustenance for human habitation. All the rest of them don't qualify under that. So you have these obscure bits of rock which have played essentially no role in international politics until quite recently.

CONAN: Until quite recently. And this, of course, dates to China's claim to them. A claim it did not, until recently, make very clear.

Mr. OTT: I think that's true. Word of historical background: the Chinese, when they came to power - the current Chinese regime - produced maps that showed the boundaries of China. And when it came to the maritime boundary in this area, they adopted a boundary first promulgated by their predecessor, the Republic of China, Kuomintang, in 1936 or even before. And so, the Chinese communist regime adopted the same line. That line encompasses the entire South China Sea. Now, for the next 20-30 years, was relatively little attention paid to that.

And it wasn't until the mid-1990s when the Philippines suddenly discovered, on an obscure atoll, one of these rocks, that there was, in fact, not uninhabited rock but a Chinese concrete military emplacement that had appeared unbeknownst to them. The rock was called, appropriately enough, Mischief Reef. And once the Filipinos discovered that, it then became an issue. What it's doing there? The Chinese has various rationales. It was to look after fishermen and that sort of thing. But it was the first signal that the Chinese were, in fact, serious about -let's call them facts on the ground or facts on the water - to enforce and make tangible a claim to the entire body of water.

CONAN: And let's talk about another historical note, if you would, and that is that China has, in recent years, been seen as sort of a regional hegemon, a rival to the United States. And there were many of the ASEAN nations, the Association of South East Asian Nations: Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, places like that, which were eager to look towards an alternative to the United States.

Mr. OTT: Yeah, we have to be careful, because it's a complex set of relationships. The word hegemon, of course, is loaded, because the Chinese have used it as a pejorative to describe the role of the United States. They would strongly reject its being applied to China.

But let's talk on more traditional geopolitical terms. China is a rising great power, rapidly growing economic and military capability. China is exhibiting all the sort of hubris and the swagger that have gone with previously rapidly rising great powers. Think Teddy Roosevelt's America. Think Prussia of the, you know, late 19th century. Think early British Empire. And the Chinese are increasingly asserting themselves as the primary power in East Asia, and I would argue, have clear aspirations to ultimately become a global superpower on at least a par with the United States. Now, that kind of growing power and ambition, if you're a smaller neighbor sitting to the south, this will make you nervous.

And the Chinese have gone under considerable length over the last 10, 12 years since Mischief Reef to portray themselves as a benign good neighbor that sought nothing but positive, mutually beneficial relationships with the Southeast Asians. And that's been largely accepted by the Southeast Asians, until fairly recently. But fairly recently, last couple of years, the growth of Chinese power has become so palpable, and the Chinese have become so assertive - think about those episodes where U.S. ships, survey ships were being bumped and jostled by a Chinese boat. A whole series of incidents like that...

CONAN: The P-3 plane forced down in Hainan Island.

Mr. OTT: Before that, and a similar episode. The Vietnamese have found their fishermen being seized even when they're in Vietnamese waters.

CONAN: And recently, the incident with Japan.

Mr. OTT: Exactly. And so the Southeast Asians watching all of this are getting nervous. And they're seeing a big powerful neighbor beginning to flex its muscles and looking a little less benign. It was in that context that when the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, showed up at a Southeast Asian meeting with the Chinese present, and asserted that the U.S. had an interest in what happened in the South China Sea, that we thought these multiple disputes that you refer to should be settled multilaterally, that sounds very harmless.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OTT: But it's a code. It means China wants to settle them one by one, divide and conquer. You know, China will deal with Singapore one on one.

CONAN: Brunei.

Mr. OTT: Brunei, Malaysia. Multilaterally means the Southeast Asians will get together and present a common front to China. Hillary Clinton endorses that approach. The Chinese don't like it. And Secretary Clinton also asserted U.S. interest in the maintenance of the South China Sea is a, quote, "maritime commons." A maritime commons is fundamentally antithetical to a territorial sea, which is what China claims.

So suddenly, a sharp, you know, red line was drawn between the U.S. position and the Chinese position. It has always been there, but it hadn't been made explicit for a very large - long time. And the Chinese had gone to considerable lengths to obscure the fact that that division was there. Now, suddenly, it's been exposed. It sort of like, you know, the chemistry exhibit in high school when you toss a crystal into the beaker, and suddenly everything crystallizes. That's what's happened.

CONAN: And indeed, the secretary of state also issued - used terminology that is of great interest, freedom of navigation.

Mr. OTT: Yes. And that's always of course been - if you ask the U.S. government what is the U.S. interest in the South China Sea, they're position will be, look, there are lots of multiple claims to these various atolls. We don't have any claims. We don't take - make judgments about that. Our only interest is peaceful settlement, but we do have one fundamental interest aside from the rocks and the atolls, and that is that the sea lanes that proceed through the South China Sea are international sea lanes subject to freedom of navigation. They are under nobody's control.

That is very different than the Chinese position which says, in effect, these are Chinese waters. We Chinese will allow you to traverse them because we're good international citizens. But because they are ours, we reserve the right to make another decision.

CONAN: And that, in the context of the remark by a Chinese official, asked specifically, could the U.S. 7th Fleet traverse the waters of the South China Sea without Chinese permission?

Mr. OTT: This was a quick conversation I had in a public setting, at Pacific Command actually, some years back. And two senior Chinese military officers, on the dais, and I asked them - and it was sort of a bolt out of the blue, I think, for them, because we were talking about something a little different. I said, South - 7th Fleet traverses the South China Sea on a regular basis. In China's view, does the 7th Fleet have a right to do so? And the answer was, unhesitatingly, no. Now, my guess is, in retrospect, they regretted being quite that candid. But nevertheless, it was a statement of a true position.

Now, the Chinese have obscured that over the years, by avoiding using the word sovereignty. And we can get into a long sidebar, which we don't have time for. But suffice it to say, when the Chinese look at international law, they're looking at something that somebody else wrote. The, you know - the Western powers, Europeans, the Americans -they didn't write this.

CONAN: They were...

Mr. OTT: They inherited it. And some of it they like, and some of it they don't like. But it does not have the same legitimacy in China's eyes that it would, say, in Britain's eyes, because the Chinese didn't write it. And so in my view, this is my argument, the Chinese will use international law to pick and choose rationales to sustain what they see as their rightful position. So as we've looked at the South China Sea, the Chinese have used various rationales. They've talked about continental shelves. They've talked about EEZs. They've talked about...

CONAN: Exclusionary Economic Zones, yes.

Mr. OTT: Exactly. They've talked about archipelagic principle. The point is, lots of different rationales, some of them mutually inconsistent. The real Chinese view is that, look, South China Sea is right next door to us, we have a coastline along it; and besides that, Chinese fishermen and explorers have been out there before anybody else. So this belongs to us, by virtue of our historic and geographical presence. The problem for the Chinese under international law is historic presence doesn't buy you anything. Just because your pottery shards show up on an atoll doesn't mean it belongs to you.

And so the Chinese then cast about for other rationales and end up mutually contradictory at various times. But the basic - I will argue, the basic point is the Chinese view the South China Sea as rightfully, this is ours. This is ours by right, by history, and the cat sort of went out of the bag in the wake of Hillary's - the secretary of state's meetings in Hanoi, when a Chinese military official spokesman in a public setting said China has quote, unquote, "indisputable" - and then he used the magic word - sovereignty - over the South China Sea.

CONAN: We're taking with Marvin Ott about the South China Sea and the different claims to it, and the United States' role in this crisis. Well, not crisis yet, but possibly a crisis. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And that's where we get to the rub. The United States' strategic interests appear to be divergent from China in this area. Now, they have been divergent in other areas. China claims Taiwan. They're working out these problems, perhaps with Taiwan. This has been a flashpoint for years, but it appears to be relatively stable at this point - economic interests. Tibet, a lot of people would dispute China's sovereignty over Tibet. China does not dispute it, and this has not been a flashpoint, but it is something that people have argued about for a very long time, and would continue to dispute. South China Sea seems to be on a different level.

Mr. OTT: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think that's the reason it's worth highlighting, is that this is a region where, in fact, the Chinese position and the U.S. position are, in fact, quite antithetical. Now there - you know, that doesn't mean you're going to go to war over it, but it means that you really have a conflict. And when you're moving military forces through an area where the fundamental view of the status of that area is in dispute, you've got a problem. And - to digress just slightly, the Chinese, to use the language of the foreign defense ministry spokesman, saying indisputable sovereignty, well, it's not indisputable. It's disputed by everybody.

The Chinese claim that the South China Sea isn't a maritime commons where there are a bunch of islands in dispute. It'll - the whole thing belongs to us. That is a claim that nobody else can accept. The Japanese can't accept it. The Koreans can't accept it. We can't accept it. Southeast Asians can't accept it. The Indians can't accept it. And so this is a problem. You now have a rapidly rising great power, ambitious, a bit of a swagger, feeling its oats, a bit of a - a bit full of itself, with a strong sense of resentment against the way it's been treated, historically, by the West - Opium Wars and all of that.

And in that context, you now have a sort of suddenly a delineated dispute over territory. Territory causes conflicts. And so my - I guess my fundamental point here for U.S. policy is we've got a problem. The Chinese have got a problem. And this is going to require some very careful management on both our parts.

CONAN: Now, just as you see new disputes arising around the Falkland Islands, of all places in the South Atlantic with Argentina and Britain, because of the discovery of oil around those waters. There is oil and gas beneath the South China Sea. Is that going to exacerbate the problem?

Mr. OTT: Yeah. Be careful - yeah. The answer is there may be. Almost everybody agrees that there's gas. The Chinese assert vast quantities of oil. The international oil companies don't think there's - there are deposits. But nobody knows. And until there's actual exploration, it will remain an unknown. But you're quite right in highlighting the issue because imagine the headline tomorrow morning that says, you know, BP or Total or Conoco or somebody, or the Chinese oil companies has just made a major oil strike in the South China Sea. Then suddenly, this sort of kind of simmering conflict, simmering dispute, suddenly goes critical, because now it will be big-time wealth at stake in addition to territory and pride.

CONAN: And China, of course, desperately needs its own - would desperately love its own sources, major sources of oil and gas.

Mr. OTT: Absolutely. It's become a major net oil importer. It's dependent on the Middle East, just like everybody else. They would love to find sources closer to home, particularly sources that they control.

CONAN: Marvin Ott, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. OTT: My pleasure.

CONAN: Marvin Ott, policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a visiting research scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. If you're wondering about the areas we're talking about, there's a map at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much for joining us here in Studio 3A.

Mr. OTT: My pleasure.

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