The Conflicts in the South China Sea

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 5
Words: 1226
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: PhD


Several countries have been involved in the dispute over a group of small islands located in the South China Sea. In this case, one should first mention China that makes these territorial claims. However, it is also necessary to consider Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines that also want to control these islands. Overall, this case can be regarded as an important test for the very notion of global governance. In particular, international institutions should demonstrate that they are able to resolve potential conflicts and act as authoritative arbiters. Moreover, it is critical for them to show that they can make different states accept their decisions. Overall, the chosen example can be useful for discussing the strengths and weaknesses of international law.

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It should be mentioned that this conflict can be explained by several reasons. In particular, the islands in the South China Sea are believed to have plentiful oil reserves (Mirski par. 2). So, they are of great importance for developing Asian economies. Furthermore, this sea is important for controlling various routes of international trade. However, much attention should also be paid to the “symbolic value” of these islands because control over these territories implies that a country has gained the palm of supremacy, at least in this region (Mirski par. 2). Furthermore, one can argue that such countries as Japan and the United States are also involuntarily involved in this dispute. In particular, the governments of these states may oppose the strengthening of China in this region.

However, in this case, one should discuss the role of nationalism in this region. This phenomenon emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, it resulted in military conflicts that could not be explained by any ideological reasons such as the conflict between Marxist and capitalist states. In fact, the “Marxist theoretical perspective” was not useful for explaining the wars involving Vietnam, China, or Cambodia (Anderson 197). More likely, these confrontations were caused by the desire of political leaders to promote the national interests of these countries. These details are important for analyzing the risks of potential military conflicts caused by the desire to control the South China Sea. Military confrontation is possible only if political leaders of a country decide that the use of force will not lead to any adverse consequences for the state. Admittedly, this outcome is rather unlikely, but this risk should not be overlooked.

Apart from that, it is important to pay attention to the role of imperialism in the contemporary world. Certainly, imperialistic rhetoric may not be fully applicable to the relations between modern countries because many of them have become integrated into the global economy. Therefore, these states become independent of one another. So, it is difficult for political leaders to perceive international relations through the lens of colonialism. Furthermore, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the expansion of colonial empires was driven by the “search for markets” (Hobsbawm 251). At this point, this goal is no longer relevant because there are many free trade agreements. However, even now many countries want to restore their status as empires. In particular, they want to become the leading states in certain regions. Moreover, this territorial expansion can be critical for their economic growth and ability to influence geopolitics. To some degree, this argument can be applied to modern China that previously controlled the disputed islands. At present, this country tries to assert its status as the superpower in Asia. However, this strategy is not readily accepted by other countries such as Japan or the Philippines.

This dispute presents a significant challenge for the idea of global governance. In particular, one should focus on the assumption implying that a set of international institutions can prevent or at least minimize the risk of conflicts between states. After the end of the Cold War, many political scientists assumed that the so-called “cosmopolitan citizenry” could restrict the use of power by separate states (Kaldor 616). Furthermore, after World War II diplomats refused to “conceive war in Clausewitzian terms” (Kaldor “The Globalized, War, Economy” 555). In other words, they did not want to regard war as a mere continuation of politics. The problem is that this approach made military conflicts much habitual or acceptable. In turn, the task of international institutions was to develop mechanisms for avoiding violent confrontations. The work of these organizations was based on the premise that different countries could respect the authority of international law. Moreover, these institutions of global governance had to be impartial. The advocates of this notion believed that these organizations could meet these standards.

Nevertheless, these assumptions were not fully justified. For instance, the countries that try to prevent China from taking control over the disputed territories should refer to the provisions included in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS (Cohen 21). This convention includes the rules according to which countries can resolve territorial disputes. The main problem is that many leading countries such as the United States failed to ratify this treaty. Therefore, they cannot expect other countries to follow the provisions of the UNCLOS. So, in this situation, they cannot put “international pressure” on China (Cohen 21). Thus, one cannot argue that international law is always functional. It is one of the limitations that should be identified.

Currently, the government of the Philippines opposes the efforts of China to reclaim the territory of these islands. Moreover, they decided to go to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. They insist that this institution should be impartial when deciding which country has the authority to control the islands located in the South China Sea. Moreover, they believe that this international court may decide in favor of a more powerful state that plays a critical role in the global economy. However, this decision may imply that international law only serves the interests of the states that have considerable economic or military resources. It is one of the problems that should be considered. Admittedly, this conflict is not likely to result in a full-scale war because militarism is no longer the best strategy for achieving geopolitical goals. Nevertheless, this threat still profoundly affects the decisions of policy-makers.

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Certainly, it is possible that the Permanent Court of Arbitration may indeed pass a verdict that can ensure free and secure navigation in the South China Sea. To some degree, this decision can show that international law and global governance can be valid concepts. However, international institutions should be able to enforce their decisions. The problem is that in many cases, they do not have this capacity. Very often, they decide that the enforcement of a certain verdict can increase the risk of conflict. It is one of the challenges that should be taken into account.


This case is very eloquent because it suggests that international mechanisms of resolving potential disputes are not always working effectively. In some cases, policy-makers can perceive them as restrictions that can adversely affect the geopolitical interests of their countries. This discussion is not aimed at showing that China’s claims on the disputed islands are absolutely unjustified. More likely, it is critical to demonstrate that the notion of global governance is not always applicable to the relations between countries, especially in those cases when these states are not equal in terms of their economic or military strength.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. “The ‘Anomaly’ of Nationalism.’” Integrated Perspectives in Global Studies. Ed. Phillip McCarthy. New York: University Readers. 2013. 197- 203. Print.

Cohen, Jerome. “China and the Reefs: A Weakness in the U.S. Position.” The New York Times, 22 May 2015: 21. Print.

Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Age of Empire.” Integrated Perspectives in Global Studies. Ed. Phillip McCarthy. New York: University Readers. 2013. 241-269. Print.

Kaldor, Mary. “Governance, Legitimacy, and Securiy.” Integrated Perspectives in Global Studies. Ed. Phillip McCarthy. New York: University Readers. 2013. 615-629. Print.

“The Globalized, War, Economy.” Integrated Perspectives in Global Studies. Ed. Phillip McCarthy. New York: University Readers. 2013. 555-575. Print.

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Mirski, Sean. “The South China Sea Dispute: A Brief History.” Lawfare. 2015. Web.