During the summer of 1977, a new Chinese leader emerged who would bring China forward into the modern age. His name was Deng Xaioping, and with all of the Communist Party leadership finally unified under his control, he would open China’s markets up to the world. Almost 40 years later, China is now among the front-runners of world power. Another Chinese Communist Party president, Xi Jinping, has once again solidified absolute rule over his party, and is directing his country’s hunger for expansion toward the South China Sea.
In recent months, China has asserted its claims over the nearly 300 islands and reefs scattered throughout the South China Sea. Many of these are submerged and barely qualify as islands, but what China is doing to them would give the EPA a collective heart-attack; China is building naval fortresses on these islands to gain military control over the region. Technically, many other Asian nations have claims to these same waters. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations all have conflicting territorial claims - but when the world’s largest military is building bases in your backyard, complaining is unwise.
Many are asking: what can China gain from owning the South China Sea (SCS) besides military territory and salt water? The answer is: a lot.
For starters, the SCS has subsea crude oil reserves of over 11 billion barrels. It also has natural gas reserves of over 190 trillion square feet - think about that number for a moment. Most of China’s giant onshore oil fields including the famous Daqing reserve have reached their productive peaks, and are declining as the country continues to grow. The South China Sea holds the fuel to sustain this growth, which is the key to all economic, political, and military doors.
Oil doesn’t just come out of the SCS, it moves through it; 50% of the world’s natural gas and roughly 30% of the world's crude oil are transported through the SCS via tankers. Additionally, many manufactured products such as clothing, electronics, and other goods are transported through this global shipping artery. China is Malaysia’s largest and most profitable trading partner, and is a prominent consumer of goods for other Asian nations. All of India’s goods must travel from the Persian Gulf through the Straight of Malacca, which brings traffic right into Singapore – just on the edge of the SCS. The country that controls the SCS just as well controls water-borne shipping for all of Asia.
The third (but by no means the last) major industry that China stands to dominate upon occupying the SCS is commercial fishing. Over the last few decades, China’s middle class boom has catalyzed fish consumption to skyrocket, while China’s fish yields have fallen in the East China Sea. The South China Sea produces roughly 10 percent of the world’s yearly catch, and controlling these waters is vital to feed the nation’s ever growing fish consumption.
As China continues to expand into the SCS, they are claiming valuable resources that many other Asian nations need, which will likely aggravate existing political and economic tension with Taiwan, other Asian countries, and even their western allies. In other words, there will be blood.