Free Trade Zones

Why this South China Sea dispute matters to America

Tensions between China and the Philippines are mounting in the South China Sea. How this conflict unfolds will have lasting effects on the power struggle between China and other nations in the region, and will have greater implications for the United States as well.

On March 20, 220 Chinese militiamen and fishing boats invaded the Whitsun Reef, a coral region in the South China Sea claimed by China and the Philippines.

Whitsun Reef is located in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Established in 1982 by the United Nations, Exclusive Economic Zones give countries complete economic control over the area up to 200 nautical miles from their coasts, including official rights to drilling and fishing.

In response to China‘s illegally operates its ships in Philippine waters, the Philippines has increased its law enforcement and military presence in the region.

According to Center for Strategic and International Studies, 13 Philippine military ships made 57 visits to disputed areas from March 1 to May 25. In the past 10 months, only three Filipino ships have visited these areas on any occasion.

Although the Philippines intercepted and pushed back its ships, China will not stop its campaign of intimidation in the region.

While Communist Chinese aggression in the South China Sea may seem like a distant problem, the United States has a lot at stake economically. If left unchallenged, China’s excessive claims could negatively influence world trade.

China wants to increase its dominance in the South China Sea, as it is a major trade route where one-third of the world’s shipping occurs. The sea is also rich in seafood and oil reserves.

Because China claims to own most of the South China Sea, it has encroached on the maritime territory of other Asian countries. These countries, including the Philippines, have their own exclusive economic zones. They do not welcome aggressive fishing and patrol vessels from China, and international courts have spoke out against China’s claims.

To overcome the arguments of his opposition, China relied on gray area tactics, which allow countries to achieve security goals without resorting to violence. These tactics have enabled China to advance its objectives peacefully in the South China Sea.

Since 2013, China built artificial islands transformed into military bases in Spratly and Paracel Islands. This has strengthened China’s dominance in the South China Sea region over other countries. China regains the upper hand without firing a shot.

To counter China’s growing power in the region, the United States should continue to support freedom of navigation, which allows ships to move and operate within legal standards, a vital part of global trade. The US Navy and Air Force conduct freedom of navigation operations that challenge the excessive maritime claims of foreign countries and establish what is appropriate behavior under international law.

Most recently, in February, the United States conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. Maintaining a US presence there through occasional missions will help reduce the Chinese presence in the region.

China’s behavior towards the Philippines indicates that it wants to dominate the region through gray area tactics. While the United States cannot resolve the complicated South China Sea dispute on its own, maintaining this presence will help keep the region open and free, and it will benefit America.

This piece originally appeared in The daily signal.