Nations: China, this land is not yours.
China: But what if we plant baby cabbages here?
China stares down its neighbors in the South China Sea. These waters boast major shipping routes rich in fish and possible oil and gas reserves. Who owns these islands, coral reefs, and lagoons? China claims them. Other nations claim them too.
You can’t exactly paint a line through the ocean. But you can draw ocean ownership on maps. And when it comes to maps of the South China Sea, each surrounding nation has its own. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China all border the sea. And all claim sections that overlap. At one small bit of sea, every single country points and says, “Mine!”
Of course, they can’t all be right.
China wants to own as much ocean as possible. If war ever came, a blockade in the South China Sea could stop Chinese exports—a huge economic blow to China. You can imagine China stretching tentacles of power into the sea. In 1947, China drew a “nine-dash line” through the South China Sea on its maps. This line includes space as much as 1,000 miles away from mainland China. China demands power over everything inside the line.
To own parts of the sea—including the airspace above it—a nation must have habitable land nearby. Several countries claim the hundreds of islands dotting the waters in the South China Sea. Most of these islands can’t be lived on. Still, China has been busy building airstrips, naval ports, and gun turrets on its claimed islands. It uses dredging boats to haul up sediment and build more islands so it can claim more ocean. Workers plant bok choy on beaches to make the land seem livable. According to The Global Times—the Chinese Communist Party’s tabloid—soldiers have grown about 1,653 pounds of bok choy cabbage, lettuce, and baby Chinese cabbage on the Paracel Islands. Vietnam and Taiwan each say these islands belong to them.
Neighbors see China as a bully. World powers watched in April as a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed waters. All the fishermen onboard survived. But China had sent its message. Chinese representatives said the boat was trespassing and refused to leave. Meanwhile, Vietnamese powers said the boat didn’t have to leave, since it was sailing in Vietnamese waters.
A third of the world’s shipping traffic passes through the South China Sea. People all over Southeast Asia rely on its fish for food. Huge reserves of oil and gas are believed to be hiding under its seabed. Nations use different names for the islands and even the sea itself because they disagree about who owns them.
But most nations agree that China is out of bounds. International laws do not support China’s claims. And in nearby lands from Australia to India you’ll find border disputes and quarrels over trade with China. Each country seems to have a beef with the bully.