Strategic Importance of the South China Sea 

The South China Sea is rich in oil and gas, fish and the shipping lanes are some of the busiest in the world. China wants control of this sea. But other countries say that they have rights to it too. Americans have trade routes through this sea worth hundreds of billions of dollars. So what is behind China’s claim over these waters? Why wouldn’t China share it with the US? And why is the South China Sea important? You will get answers to all these questions in this article.

Historical Context of the South China Sea

The South China Sea has a rich history of serving as an important trade route, promoting trade, cultural exchanges, and economic growth among countries in the Asia-Pacific area. This vital maritime passageway goes back to ancient times with trading routes used by Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Indian civilizations.

The South China Sea developed into a vital commercial route known as the “Maritime Silk Road” during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Chinese merchants crossed the sea, bringing spices, silk, porcelain, and other precious products to far-off places. Along with connecting China to the outside world, this maritime route promoted cultural exchanges between other nations, bringing information, creativity, and ideas.

Chinese explorer Zheng. He traveled to the beaches of Southeast Asia, India, and even Africa during a series of expeditions he undertook in the 15th century, illustrating the South China Sea’s function as a hub for international trade and exploration. However, territorial struggles and wars occasionally cut off these ancient trading connections.

Throughout history, the South China Sea has seen several territorial disputes and claims, with numerous countries fighting for control of its islands and waterways. The sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, a collection of islets, reefs, and atolls, is one of the more prominent disputes. This archipelago has been claimed by several nations, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

Japan occupying the South China Sea islands was one of the most significant moments during World War II. The territorial distribution of these islands was dealt with by the Treaty of San Francisco, signed in 1951, but disagreements have lingered, escalating tensions in the region.

As states attempt to exert their sovereignty over contested areas, territorial disputes have grown to be a source of international tension in recent decades. Understanding the historical context is crucial to understanding the geopolitical forces that currently surround the South China Sea and the long-lasting significance of this maritime region.

Also read: What Is the Motive of China Behind Its Interest in Taiwan?

Geopolitical Importance of the South China Sea

The South China Sea holds an enormous geopolitical influence within the broader perspective of global politics. It is a focus point for international powers and their interests because of its strategic location at the crossroads of international maritime routes connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. 

The South China Sea is vital for the global economy as it permits the annual transfer of products worth trillions of dollars. These waters carry nearly one-third of all global trade, including essential energy supplies like oil and natural gas. If China tries to disrupt this trade, then it would damage the global supply chain and the health of the economies of other countries.

The South China Sea has turned into a flashpoint for the interests and rivalries of major states because of its geopolitical importance. The region is important to many countries, including the United States, China, Russia, and Japan.

1) United States

The United States has maintained a strong presence in the South China Sea to safeguard its regional allies, including Japan and the Philippines, as well as to ensure the freedom of navigation and compliance with international law. The US states that the South China Sea is not China’s maritime empire. Regular patrols and exercises of the US Navy on these waters caused tensions between the two nations. 

2) China

China’s desire to take more control over the waters explains its aggression in the South China Sea. In addition to pursuing territorial claims, the Chinese government created artificial islands with military facilities and declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the region. This has sparked worries in the surrounding nations and added to the instability in the region. The former Chinese foreign ministry spokesman stated that the US is a troublemaker and undermines regional peace and stability. 

3) Russia

Russia also shares an interest in the South China Sea while maintaining its presence in the Pacific. Russia’s involvement complicates the geopolitical situation in the area. The US Navy sent destroyer ships to the coast of Alaska in August 2023 when nearly a dozen Russian and Chinese warships were spotted patrolling in nearby international waters. The presence of 11 Chinese and Russian warships was a reminder of the cooperation of the two major militaries. 

4) Japan

Japan might not have a direct border with the South China Sea but its commercial and energy needs depend on the safety of these waters. Japan has stated its support for international law and freedom of navigation concerning territorial conflicts. Japan, along with the US and South Korea condemned China’s aggressive actions in the region in September 2023. 

What is the Economic Significance of the South China Sea?

The South China Sea holds profound importance both regionally and globally as a vital trade route and a repository of valuable natural resources. It serves as a crucial trade hub for various economies of East Asia, South Asia, and beyond. A trade of more than $5.3 trillion happens on these waters. It makes up about one-third of all marine traffic. Any kind of interruption to this trade channel would be disastrous for several industries, global supply networks, and consumer prices.

About a million people in the South China Sea area rely on the fisheries as a primary source of food and living. The deep waters of the sea are abundant with fish populations and other marine resources. 

There are huge oil and natural gas reserves beneath the ocean floor. According to estimates, the South China Sea contains about 190 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves and 11 billion barrels (bbl) of oil reserves, and the pursuit of energy has caused conflict between nations with competing claims. Access to these resources is essential for the development and stability of the energy industry as well as for countries with a high energy demand.

China is the most significant player in this region. China’s imports and exports flow through these waters which play a crucial role in its economy and energy security. China’s economy is also strengthened by its fishing sector and prospective hydrocarbon deposits.

Nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand depend on the South China Sea for its maritime trade and fisheries. These countries exploit the sea as a bridge to international markets, luring investments and fostering economic growth in their coastal areas.

Also read: Rise of China in the Solar Industry

Natural Resources

The South China Sea is rich with abundant natural resources making it important for both regional and international nations. 

The fisheries in the South China Sea are thriving and home to many different fish species. Millions of people in the neighboring nations depend on these fisheries for a living, and they also make a sizable contribution to the world’s seafood supply.

There are huge oil and natural gas reserves beneath the South China Sea’s surface. According to US estimates, the area is home to substantial hydrocarbon reserves, which might provide the seaside nations with 190 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves. The sea contains significant mineral resources, including rare earth elements, which are essential for modern technology and manufacturing.

Freedom of Navigation

The principle of international law is known as “Freedom of navigation” which allows all nations to travel through and utilize the sea for a variety of purposes without interference from the limitations imposed by coastal states. By international law, China should not interrupt other countries that are using the South China Sea. But as it seems, China wants to make the sea its private possession. That is why powerful countries like the United States are sending their warships to go through the region and let China know that the region is still open to other countries. China can not interfere in this matter. The Freedom Of Navigation Operations started tension between these two major countries.

Freedom of navigation is critical for countries like the USA, Japan, Russia, etc as it maintains the flow of global trade. Any interruption, such as blocking shipping routes or enforcing illegal regulations, might result in delays, higher costs, and supply chain disruptions that would harm businesses all over the world. 

Environmental Concerns

The South China Sea faces several pressing environmental challenges, including overfishing and pollution, which threaten the South China Sea’s sensitive marine ecosystems severely.

The South China Sea’s overfishing is a serious problem that is caused by the strong demand for seafood on a regional and international scale. The imbalance of marine ecosystems has been thrown off by overfishing, which has resulted in the extinction of numerous species. It also jeopardizes the long-term viability of fisheries, endangering the livelihoods of nearby fishing communities.

The increased demand for seafood has led to uncontrolled fishing practices, which have severely depleted fish stocks. According to recent data, several important species have declined by 70%, which is a shocking decrease. Food instability is exacerbated by this widespread exploitation, which puts millions of people whose livelihoods depend on fishing in danger. The situation is made worse by ongoing illegal fishing and unregulated activities. It is essential to take immediate action to reduce overfishing, protect biodiversity, and maintain the region’s socioeconomic structure. 

Several factors contribute to the South China Sea’s pollution, including industrial runoff, shipping, and land-based runoff. Untreated sewage discharge, agricultural runoff, and oil spills all contribute to water pollution, which is bad for coral reefs and marine life. As plastic waste builds up in the ocean and harms marine life and ecosystems, plastic pollution is also becoming a major concern. Countries that depend on the South China Sea’s resources may suffer economically as a result of the sea’s environmental degradation. The stability of the economy and global trade may consequently be impacted.

The South China Sea’s environmental degradation highlights the necessity of international cooperation in resolving the world’s environmental problems. Fighting pollution, overfishing, and other challenges to marine ecosystems requires international cooperation. The sea’s environmental issues have significant worldwide consequences. This significant marine ecosystem must be protected and preserved not only for the sake of the neighboring nations but also to ensure global biodiversity, food security, and environmental sustainability. International cooperation and concerted efforts are required to address these issues.

Territorial Disputes Over the South China Sea

The South China Sea features complex and protracted territorial disputes involving numerous claimants, each claiming sovereignty over different islands, reefs, and waterways.

The Spratly Islands are at the center of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This strategically positioned and resource-rich archipelago is claimed in various ways by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

Paracel Islands is another controversial area. There have been conflicts in the past as a result of China and Vietnam’s conflicting claims to this island series.

Scarborough Shoal is the subject of conflicting claims between China and the Philippines. When China seized control of the shoal in 2012, tensions in the area grew as a result of the conflict. Macclesfield Bank and James Shoal, which are both remote from China’s mainland and closer to other claimants, are included in the country’s territorial claims.

Nearly the whole South China Sea is included in China’s contentious “Nine-Dash Line” claim, which also overlaps with the maritime areas of other nations. This expansive claim of sovereignty has caused massive conflict in the region.

Multiple nations are involved in the complicated and delicate territorial disputes in the South China Sea. International law, arbitration, regional organizations, and diplomatic initiatives all play crucial roles in controlling and possibly resolving these disputes. The geopolitical environment of the region makes it difficult to come to a peaceful and amicable agreement.

Also read: Why is China not a part of G7?

Major Regional Security Challenges

There are numerous security dangers and challenges in the South China Sea that could destabilize the area. The major source of tension is the ongoing territorial disputes over islands, reefs, and waters. 

The United States, China, and Russia have been stepping up their military presence to show their dominance. This militarization increases the risk of incidents at sea and fuels an arms race. Close encounters and standoffs with the Chinese military have resulted from freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) carried out by the United States and other nations to exercise their right to sail and fly across international waters and airspace. These events give rise to concerns about accidental clashes.

Countries are fighting for the natural resources of the South China Sea. Excessive fishing has led to fights between fishing ships. Piracy, human trafficking, and environmental degradation are examples of non-conventional security risks that could affect the South China Sea. Regional collaboration is necessary for these concerns to be managed and addressed effectively.

A military presence, especially one with air and naval forces, can operate as a deterrence to violent behavior. This discourages nations from pursuing aggressive policies and promotes peaceful dispute resolution. United States, Japan, and Australia have formed alliances and partnerships with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to improve their security posture in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea presents a difficult and multifaceted challenge for maintaining regional security. To effectively manage the security concerns in this strategically important and contentious region, military presence and alliances must be balanced with diplomatic efforts, dispute resolution techniques, and a commitment to upholding international law.

The Stance of Major Powers

The United States of America has supported the maintenance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It runs Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to defend its stance against excessive maritime claims. The United States has urged diplomatic resolution of issues while expressing support for its partners and allies in the region, such as the Philippines and Japan. President Biden stated that America would stand up for the international law. The US military presence and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific area are crucial to balancing China’s growth. 

On the other hand, China asserts its sovereignty claims over the majority of the South China Sea based on historical evidence and the “Nine-Dash Line” map. There are questions regarding its goals because it has militarized artificial islands and engaged in massive land reclamation in the area. China has advocated for a “dual-track approach” to resolve territorial disputes and foster cooperative development, calling for bilateral negotiations with individual claimants rather than multilateral consultations.

China has sought to increase its influence in the South China Sea through economic and infrastructure efforts like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while emphasizing its commitment to peaceful resolution. Global political developments in the South China Sea have a significant impact on great power competition, alliance dynamics, international law, trade, and regional diplomacy. The positions of major countries, especially the United States and China, have an impact on the course of events in the region as well as the larger international order and security environment.

Diplomatic Efforts in South China Sea Conflict Resolution

Various diplomatic initiatives and negotiations have been made to address and resolve conflicts in the South China Sea. Some of the most important diplomatic efforts included:

1) Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)

China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the DOC in 2002. It is a voluntary pact to foster harmony, stability, and collaboration in the South China Sea. The DOC binds the parties to act with moderation, refrain from provocative behavior, and work toward the eventual adoption of a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC).

2) Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)

At the start of 2013, China and ASEAN members began negotiating a COC. The COC aims to provide a comprehensive framework for handling disputes and guaranteeing maritime security.

Despite all the progress, the COC has been difficult due to differences on important topics like the code’s scope, enforcement procedures, and the role of outside powers.

3) Bilateral Talks

Various countries involved in the South China Sea disputes have engaged in bilateral negotiations to resolve their differences. China and Vietnam held discussions aimed at resolving territorial disputes in the Gulf of Tonkin. These talks have led to limited agreements but the main issues are yet to be resolved.

4) Regional Dialogues and Forums

Regional gatherings like the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) give claimant states and major powers a place for discussion and confidence-building.

Even though these platforms encourage dialogue, no thorough solutions to the territorial conflicts have resulted from them.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes in the South China Sea have had some encouraging outcomes in terms of reducing tensions and fostering communication. There has not been a definite solution on this matter yet as the major nations continue to shape the dynamics in the region. If both sides try to resolve this issue by creating common ground and preserving international norms, the issue of the South China Sea will come to an end. 

Also read: China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy & Its Core Foreign Policy


The South China Sea holds massive importance not only for China but for other major countries as well. It is the trading route for countries like the United States and Russia. Being a trillion-dollar market, no country wants to leave these waters. The possession of China is not legally correct according to international law. The United States does not want to give all the sea’s possessions to China as it might motivate them to gain more and more. That is why they have performed numerous diplomatic efforts such as the Freedom of Navigation Operations.

The South China Sea is important for all these countries. Using warships and illegal possession would only result in destruction and damage. China and all other countries corresponding to this sea must follow international law and perform their trade as they want without any interruption. 

The South China Sea will continue to play a significant role in world affairs and international relations. Its relevance will continue to reverberate on both a regional and global level as a result of a complex interaction of diplomatic, economic, environmental, and security considerations.


Why Is the South China Sea Important?

The South China Sea is important for the three following reasons:
1. Trade route
2. Natural resources
3. Geopolitical importance

Why Does China Want to Claim the South China Sea?

China wants to hold complete sovereignty of the South China Sea. It wants to acquire the rights to fishing stocks,  the discovery and future extraction of natural gas and oil on the seabed in different areas of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of pivotal shipping lanes.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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