On Saturday, the U.S. Navy deployed two aircraft carriers from the Philippines to the South China Sea to engage in dual-carrier exercises. This marks the first time that the United States has conducted military exercises in the region since 2014.
The move comes after China staged exercises in the region starting July 1, blocking maritime trade routes in the vicinity of the engagements.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian swiftly condemned America’s exercises. “It is completely out of ulterior motives that the US flexes its muscles by purposely sending a powerful military force to the relevant waters for large-scale exercises.” he said during a July 6 press conference. “The U.S. intends to drive a wedge between regional countries, promote militarization of the South China Sea and undermine peace and stability in the region”.
In recent years, China has been seeking to expand its sovereignty to the strategically important region. As early as 2015, the Chinese government began building islands in the South China Sea, building airstrips and military installations to support its claims of sovereignty over the sea.
Chinese expansion has antagonized neighboring countries who claim portions of the region, like Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They rely upon the fisheries, oil reserves, and trade traffic of the sea to support their economies. There is reasonable suspicion that China may leverage its control of regional maritime traffic and natural resources to apply economic and political pressure, effectively limiting their economic power.
The importance of the South China Sea to American economic interests cannot be underestimated. In 2016, $3.37 trillion in exports passed through the region. Approximately one-third of global shipping volume is carried through the South China Sea. While only 14 percent of American maritime trade passes through the region, that number is much higher for our trading partners and allies in the South Pacific.
The South China Sea is also home to an abundance of highly valuable natural resources. Over half of the world’s fishing vessels are in the region, providing food millions and constituting a large portion of local economic output. Additionally, the sea is estimated to contain 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If China is able to assert sovereignty over the area, it will be able to gain drilling rights to the extensive energy reserves underneath the sea’s waters.
Gaining access to the South China Sea’s energy resources is of the utmost importance to Chinese interests. China is the world’s top energy importer, relying on nations in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to supply the vast majority of its energy resources. Energy independence would grant China even more global economic power than it already has, furthering its Asian imperial aspirations.
The American military exercises in the South China Sea are an escalation of years-long conflict over the area’s strategic shipping lanes and natural resources. If America seeks to remain an economic player in Asia and limit Chinese economic imperialism, we must stand with our Asian allies to ensure that the region remains free and open for global trade.