The Ghosts Who Haunt the South China Sea

The Ghosts Who Haunt the South China Sea

More than most, four men shaped the oft-cited “strategic tensions” over the world’s most important body of water.

The south china sea is the most important body of water for the world economy—through it passes at least one-third of global trade. It is also the most dangerous body of water in the world, the place where the militaries of the United States and China could most easily collide.

Chinese and American warships have just barely averted several incidents there over the past few years, and the Chinese military has warned off U.S. jets flying above. In July, the two nations carried out competing naval exercises in those waters. Given what is called the growing “strategic rivalry” between Washington and Beijing, the specter of an accident that in turn triggers a larger military confrontation preoccupies strategists in both capitals.

These tensions grow out of a disagreement between the two countries as to whether the South China Sea is Chinese territory, a quarrel that speaks to a deeper dispute about maritime sovereignty, how it is decided upon, and the fundamental rights of movement in those waters.

The standoff over the South China Sea thus has many levels of complexity. It is not simply about one body of water, or a single boundary. As Tommy Koh, a senior Singaporean diplomat who led negotiations to create the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, told me, “the South China Sea is about law, power, and resources, and about history.”