In the South China Sea, a small part of the ocean is causing a big international dispute. The region is situated in the middle of vital shipping routs, and some estimates say that there are more oil reserves than all of Saudi Arabia, giving China the ability to fuel itself for a century. Accordingly, China has claimed it as part of their maritime border, called their nine-dash line, which also overlaps with the claims of Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It’s become a flashpoint in the region, and the cause of military build up amongst all of these nations. The islands are also a test for the new Chinese foreign policy. How will they use their rising military and economic power?
[If I were Xi Jinping] China would adopt a “dual-track” strategy in the South China Sea disputes. On the one hand, China will keep pushing for its territorial and maritime rights claims through diplomatic and military coercion, including continued land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China will also pursue “charm offensives” in Southeast Asia, using economic enticements such as infrastructure projects and investments to repair ties and manage differences. This trend is evident in China’s proposal to develop the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” through Southeast Asia to South Asia and the Indian Ocean. On the issue of the Philippines’ request for arbitration at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, China will try to strengthen its legal argument at the court but is unlikely to allow the result of such an arbitration to define or affect Chinese activities in the region.