The U.S and China Tensions Rising Fast

US and China square off at UN Security Council meeting
Map of South China Sea (file photo)

Published Aug 11, 2021 4:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

At a high-level U.N. Security Council Virtual Meeting on maritime security this week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken accused China of aggressive behavior in the South China Sea with recent dangerous encounters between the U.S. and Chinese naval warships.

China continues to assert its claims to maritime areas of the South China Sea, despite being ruled against by an international tribunal over five years ago. Blinken made it clear that China has been “intimidating and bullying other states” as it unlawfully accessing its maritime resources.

China’s deputy ambassador said the U.S. is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. The Chinese diplomat called the International Tribunal’s arbitration award to the Philippines “invalid and without binding force.” He also claimed that the Chinese Navy had to chase a U.S. warship out of the area, which the U.S. Navy called false.

Blinken made it clear during the meeting that any conflict there or in any ocean “would have serious consequences for security and commerce.”

The Chinese ambassador claims the U.S. has no credibility because it is not party to the U.N. Conventions on the Law at Sea, which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in the use of the world’s oceans. The U.S. has not ratified the convention but said it recognizes international law.

Why Does China Want Control of the South China Sea?

The South China Sea encompasses Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Beijing claims 90% of the sea, which encompasses an area of around 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles), and says the sea is key to its national security

The South China Sea is essential for the strategic patrol of the Chinese SSBN, which is a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. It also claims the South China Sea could act as a buffer zone when the U.S. conducts military attacks against mainland China.

While both nations accuse each other of destabilizing the region, especially in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing says the U.S. supported Taiwan is a threat to its sovereignty.

China needs transportation sea routes, and the South China Sea accounts for at least a third of the global maritime trade. There are also huge oil and natural gas reserves beneath its seabed, and it is a vital fishing area crucial for China’s food security.

To counter China's expanding influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. has also formed a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, Japan, and India. The informal strategic forum exchanges information and performs military drills between members.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against Chinese claims to rights in the South China Sea, backing a 2013 case brought by the Philippines. The court said China’s claims of historic rights within the nine-dash line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea, were without legal foundation.