This Philippines Navy vessel has been grounded since 1999 to assert the nation's sovereignty over the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea reef also claimed by China. Marines stationed here have in recent months been blockaded by Chinese ships, forcing them to fish for food.
Credit: Jay Directo

BANGKOK — Unlike Beijing — noisy, crowded, gagging on pollution — China’s newest prefecture is tropical and breezy.

It’s called Sansha. In a nation of 1.3 billion, it is virtually uninhabited. All of Sansha’s residents (under 1,000 people) could fit comfortably inside one of Beijing’s popular nightclubs.

Sansha is also more than 99.9 percent water. Its largest town sits on a 2.1-square-kilometer (0.8-square-mile) island — equal in size to Six Flags America. The other islands in this so-called “prefecture,” declared into existence on July 24, 2012, are even tinier specks barely poking above the aquamarine sea.

The rest of the world knows the area as the South China Sea.

The map below shows the so-called “Nine Dash Line” or “Cow Tongue” that appears on all Chinese maps, outlining the extent of Beijing’s maritime claims. In all, the Cow Tongue covers 80 percent of the South China Sea. 

Though empty, it is coveted. By Chinese estimates, its undersea oil deposits could yield 200 billion oil barrels — equal to 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves.

Rights to the sea are disputed by seven nations, most of them backed by the US. As President Barack Obama visits Asia — with an April 27-28 stop in the Philippines, a former US colony vying for control of the waters — he will wade into a dispute that pits America against a very agitated China.

This is a serious issue for Washington, which has promised in writing to protect allies’ territory with American force.

China may soon test this vow. Only recently has the rising power gained enough economic and military strength to stage a full-on push to control the sea. And though Obama’s “pivot” to Asia intends to reassure allies that America will keep its promise, crises in Europe, the Middle East and back home have distracted the White House from this mission.

Here’s what you need to know about the South China Sea dispute.

China isn’t backing down

The South China Sea is China’s answer to the Caribbean. Just as America waged bloody combat to dominate the Caribbean Sea — see the 20th-century “Banana Wars” that put US troops in Haiti and Cuba, among other places — China appears intent on securing the waters in its backyard, even if that requires force.

Even if the sea never produces another drop of oil, it remains pivotal to Beijing. Half the world’s oil exports cross these waters. Most of those barrels are bound for energy-hungry China.

But smaller nations abutting the sea are incredulous that the People's Republic — with its mainland thousands of miles away — has the nerve to claim waters right off their coastlines. The two biggest players in this dispute are Vietnam and the Philippines.

These disputed waters “have been parts of China’s territory since ancient times,” according to a report sent to GlobalPost by the Chinese government. “Many countries have territories which are far away from their home territory but are closer to other countries,” the document points out. (That was certainly once true in the Philippines, forcefully occupied by America for much of the 20th century, or even Alaska and Hawaii today.)

China is furious over American 'meddling,' and not at all shy about saying so

In this dispute, America treats Vietnam and the Philippines as victims of Chinese aggression. This makes China’s politburo seethe. Their state-run media routinely depicts the US as a hypocritical bully goading its pawns into battles they cannot win.

“China is capable of resolving this dispute for good, in an aggressive way, and Chinese society is also calling for such an approach,” reads one recent editorial in the state-owned Global Times. Another op-ed claims the Philippines can “do nothing but provoke China like a clown under the indulgence of some Western forces.”

This is worrisome for the US, which signed a treaty to defend its former colony against any “external armed attack.” More worrisome still: The White House is negotiating to rotate more Americans troops, jets and ships through the Philippines. These plans will dominate Obama’s visit to Manila, and could even be finalized during the trip.

Honoring treaties aside, America’s main objective is keeping some of the world’s busiest sea lanes from becoming Chinese property and, of course, making sure US corporations get a crack at all that undersea oil and gas.

The Philippines won’t give in, either

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has seen China’s threats and raised them one Nazi analogy.

In an interview about the disputed sea, Aquino told The New York Times: “Remember that the Sudetenland (part of the former Czechoslovakia) was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Philippine officials often describe China’s claims to the sea as dangerous imperialism.

“We’d like to shake hands with China. But it’s difficult to shake hands when your foot is on my foot,” Henry Bensurto Jr., senior diplomat with the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, told GlobalPost in 2012. “There is a saying ... if you’re being raped, maybe it’s good to just enjoy it... we refuse to be like that.”

China’s officialdom will be paying close attention to Obama’s Philippine visit, where the South China Sea will be “the most relevant issue.”

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