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.


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 are disputed 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.

In the SCS are already various offshore oil extracting enterprises taking place, most of them near the coasts of China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In the disputed area of the Spratly Islands are further oil reserves expected, thus the littoral states try to ensure their claims to participate in the subsequent exploitation of the oil fields.

Last but not least, the SCS is one of the busiest routes of global merchant ships, roughly half of the annual trade shipping is passing through the bottleneck at the entrance to the SCS, the Strait of Malacca. These sea lanes possess further significance since the majority of Chinese and Japanese imported oil is transported via the SCS. An interruption of these pivotal bloodlines would have significant consequences for the world’s second and third biggest economy, respectively. But since the majority of European-Asian trade is shipped through these waters, not only the littoral states have an interest in these busy sea lanes.

Combined, the economic and strategic importance of the SCS makes it a hotspot of geopolitics. Its mixture of energy resources and strategic sea lanes has a high potential for conflict but surprisingly, the region and its conflicts waned from the headlines of international newspapers and the mindfulness of geopolitical strategists. Over the last ten years, the several efforts to fight terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia gave China free rein to arrange the relations to its south-eastern neighbours.

But since 2010, the conflict over sovereignty rights and territorial waters in the SCS is gaining new attention. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the free passage through the sea lanes of the SCS was an US national interest, she provoked harsh reactions from Beijing.

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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 1

* Tilman Pradt is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität of Berlin.
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