Vanishing Borders in the South China Sea

The U.S. Must Do More to Stop China's Encroachments

An aerial view of a China-occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Francis Malasig / Reuters

On May 27, two U.S. Navy ships engaged in a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands to contest China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore several days later, when asked about the maneuver by a senior colonel from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, “We do not do freedom of navigation for America alone … it’s freedom for all nations, large and small, that need to transit those waters for their own prosperity and they have every reason to do so.” And yet, despite statements like these and an increase in such operations by the U.S. Navy, China continues to succeed in steadily restricting freedoms in the South China Sea, particularly those of its neighbors. This behavior exacts a direct economic toll on the region’s developing countries, and, more broadly, threatens international law and the United States’ interest in maintaining a rules-based order. 


China has been aggressive in restricting its neighbors’ activities in the South China Sea over the last year. Twice in that time—in July 2017 and again in March 2018—it strongarmed Vietnam, reportedly with the threat of force, into suspending two natural gas drilling projects on the country’s own continental shelf. With the Philippines, Beijing has pushed for joint oil and gas development in an area of the sea bed that an international court ruled belongs exclusively to Manila.

In late March, the Vietnamese government issued a last-minute order for Spanish energy company Repsol to suspend work on a planned oil and gas project in part of the Red Emperor (Ca Rong Do) field. Repsol had already commissioned a rig to depart for the project site and had, along with its partners, spent an estimated $200 million on the project. A similar incident occurred last July, when Repsol began drilling a well in a nearby block but was ordered to stand down after Chinese authorities reportedly threatened

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