The South China Sea is still one of the world’s most dangerous ocean areas. But although it is subject to some of Mother Nature’s most violent typhoons, its real danger is its international disputes. After a long period of relative calm, winds of change are whipping up South China Sea politics again. Vietnam and the Philippines are pushing to open exploration for oil and gas, and China has awarded new drilling contracts. The commercial operations of each country are disputed and opposed by the two others, as well as by Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It will take luck as well as cross-border cooperation to avoid real conflict.
The main actor in South China Sea politics is China. Beijing claims sovereignty over pretty well all of the Sea, including areas that are much further away from China than other littoral countries. Taiwan’s claims are the same as China’s, and backed by the same, often questionable historical documents. Vietnam and the Philippines each claim ownership of huge swathes of the Sea itself, as well as island groups, especially the Spratly Islands, which are actually occupied by all four countries. The territorial claims of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are more modest but no less aggressive.