For several years, the Chinese communist regime (CCP) has been increasing its expansion illegally in the South China Sea. 

Although an international ruling handed down in 2016 invalidated all the Chinese regime’s claims to the maritime zone, the Chinese regime did not accept the ruling and continued its expansion. 

Several neighboring countries entered the dispute, claiming China infringed on their maritime spaces. These include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.

China’s advances over the maritime space include the construction of artificial islands with ports and military airports, which increases the international community’s concern due to the uncertainty generated by the CCP’s intentions. 

The United States and its allies, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the governments in power, play a key role in the region to prevent the CCP’s outrage from being total. 

The legal disputes and the strong military presence of these countries in the South China Sea have acted as a counterweight force to limit the advance and intentions of the CCP. 

Recently, the dispute in the area was refloated with force after the United States conducted two “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) the last week, through which a U.S. Navy ship sailed in the vicinity of a chain of islands claimed by China as its own.  

The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailed near the Spratly Islands, known as China’s Nansha Islands, in the southeastern South China Sea. 

The Saturday, July 16 operation was the fourth FONOP to challenge Chinese claims this year and the second such operation for the Benfold in the past four days, as on Wednesday, July 13, the same U.S. Navy ship conducted a maneuver of the style in the Parcel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China.

The islands in question are not only claimed by the CCP, but also Vietnam and Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei dispute over them.

The U.S. Navy’s operation in the island chain where China has built military fortifications on artificial islands aroused the ire of the communist regime, which was quick to express its displeasure over the action.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Command warned the U.S. destroyer to leave its “territorial waters.”

“The U.S. military’s actions have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” warned Tian Junli, a PLA colonel. 

However, U.S. Navy officials responded that the operations carried out by the destroyer sought to “uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law.”

The statement added that the regime’s maritime claims are entirely illegal and further threaten guarantees of free movement of the seas, free overflight, and free trade.

“Under international law…the ships of all States—including their warships—enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is unlawful,” the U.S. Navy said in a public statement.

What is the interest in the South China Sea?

The South China Sea represents a vital sector for world trade. It is a passageway between Central and East Asia and has become one of the areas with the highest maritime commercial traffic in the world. Among other important issues, it is also one of the routes where most of the extracted oil transits. 

In addition to the importance of transit, the waters of the South China Sea represent a rich source of fish, adding to the list of interests that motivate the Chinese regime to advance in absolute control over the region. 

Another not minor point of contention in the waters of the South China Sea arose with the discovery of the vast reserves of rare earths in the seabed near the Spratly Islands.

Notably, this set of scarce minerals, known as “rare earths,” is crucial to the defense, technology, and renewable energy industries. World production of these critical raw materials barely reaches a few thousand tons per year, and their exploitation is shared among a handful of countries, including China.

Over the past few years, some competitors have emerged. Still, China has tried to deepen its extraction technologies and take geo-strategic steps to secure its access to the raw material. 

The Chinese regime has developed the world’s most advanced deepwater mining technology. Its ability to harvest polymetallic nodules and the rare earths they contain is unparalleled, so granting it free access to these minerals would allow it to increase its monopoly power in this sensitive industry.

The Paracel Islands are a group of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northwestern part of the South China Sea. They have no indigenous population and are inhabited only by Chinese military garrisons numbering up to 1,400 permanent personnel.

The islands have been in regime hands for nearly 50 years and, during that time, have been populated with PLA military installations.

Since its settlement, the CCP has gradually created numerous artificial islands throughout the region, which are used as bases for military equipment and as a political argument to increase pressure on its claims. 

This has ensured that the regime has access to rich reserves of fisheries, natural gas, and now also “rare earths” while blocking these resources from the international community.

The regime has been able to easily intimidate small nations in the region to prevent them from approaching the United States, which was from the beginning the country that put the most obstacles to its imperialist advance.

U.S. action and warnings

The presence of the United States as an observer and guarantor of free movement in the maritime zone of the South China Sea is even older than that of the communist regime. 

Ever since China decided to start increasing its presence there, the United States managed a powerful resistance to prevent its advance.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, the tension became more evident because the president paid special attention to the region, especially after the trade war was openly declared.

In this sense, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in December 2021 during an interview on WABC 770 AM about the danger that the subjugation and excess of power of the CCP in the South China Sea area meant for the whole world. 

According to the former Secretary of State, the monopolization that China intends to generate in the mentioned trade route could cause massive global shortages if it is not stopped in time.

For the moment, everything is reduced to threats, demonstrations of power, and legal claims, inevitably reminiscent of the situation during the Cold War years between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Today the situation has become extremely tense. The strong military presence of the United States and its allies and the Chinese regime in the region poses a war scenario that, if it materializes, could be terrible.

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