Asia’s New Great Game? The Geopolitics of the South China Sea

The power struggle between the British Empire and Russian Empire for influence in Central Asia during the 19th century was afterwards coined as the Great Game. In this strategic rivalry, Afghanistan played a key role because the British feared that the Russians would use Afghanistan as a base for forthcoming invasions into the then British colony India. The recent statements of US and Asian policy-makers might suggest that a new Great Game is underway, this time in the area of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea (SCS) is the semi-enclosed sea from the south of China to the north of Indonesia and from the east of Malaysia to the west of the Philippines. The territorial demarcations aredisputed for decades as are the questions of sovereignty over the islands and islets which are located within the SCS. Several claimants such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and China currently possess islets in the SCS and question each other’s rights to do so. This situation has only marginally changed during the last twenty years, upgrading of military outposts on the islets being the notorious exception.

There are different reasons for the importance of these areas in the SCS, substantial fish stocks, existing and assumed energy resources (e.g., oil and gas resources) and highly frequented sea lanes are the main causes for interest.

The various fish stocks in the SCS build the economic basis for millions of fishermen in the littoral states, furthermore, the fish catch plays a pivotal part in the nutrition of the people living in this area. The demarcation of waters and the possession islets are important means to claim fishing rights in the area.

Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 1


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