I’ve always had an obsession with playing around with and looking intently at maps. I possess a collection of state highway maps from all over the United States. Sometimes, I would spend time playing around with Google Earth. So it was comforting to know that my professor for Intro to International Studies last semester also had the same nerdy map obsession. Dr. Stevens would regularly set aside twenty to thirty minutes of some classes to look at geostrategic locations around the world, and how each location was usually accompanied by some military installation or base, usually belonging to the United States or some other military power.
One of the areas we looked closely at was the South China Sea. The South China Sea is a body of water in the western Pacific Ocean bordered by five countries: Malaysia, Vietnam, People’s Republic of China, Brunei, and the Philippines. The sea is void of any sizable islands, with isolated archipelagos, like the Spratly Islands, scattering islands, reefs, and atolls (most of which are sand bars just barely above the water line) throughout the area. However, zooming in on these islands, as my professor demonstrated in front of the class, reveals something quite astonishing. Naval bases and airstrips have been constructed on islands barely surpassing a square mile in area. Some of the islands » that have been transformed into military settlements in the past few years. Why are these islands being transformed into military bases?
The sea is of great geostrategic importance as one-third of global trade (mostly consisting of oil on its way to East Asia) passes through the South China Sea. On top of that, there are rich opportunities for fishing and speculation of vast oil and natural gas reserves under its seabed. The neighboring countries are eager to claim the resources that the South China Sea has to offer. This is reflected by the overlapping territorial and maritime claims by each of these countries. The most notable claim is China’s Nine Dash Line, established after World War II to reflect claimed historical ties to the region, which overlaps all other claims and constitutes about ninety percent of the entire South China Sea.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) declares that sovereign states have an exclusive economic zone in any international body of water extending 200 nautical miles from their shore. By building military bases on islands in the South China Sea, countries can claim that their sovereignty extends to these islands, extending their exclusive economic zone to encompass the area around these islands. This creates an incredible mess for sovereignty and economic rights between these countries, and while an arbitral tribunal ruled that China’s claims had no historical basis and violated UNCLOS, it is unenforceable.
Looking at maps can be an interesting hobby, as shown by the discoveries one can make when just looking around. However, some countries would prefer many people not discover the interesting and questionable things that they are pursuing.
United Nations Convention on Law and Sea »
The South China Sea Arbitration »
Peter Fortunato is a freshman at the University of Miami Ohio, pursuing a Bachelor degree in both International Studies and Statistics, while minoring in Spanish.