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Is the South China Sea, like Taiwan, a core national interest now for China?

Question submitted by Michael, from University of St. Gallen, July 29, 2013

Answered by: Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action

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Spanning from the Singapore and Malacca straits to the Strait of Taiwan, the South China Sea is one of the world's most hotly disputed bodies of water. China lays claim to nearly the entire sea, overlapping with the maritime claims of Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. With sovereign territory, natural resources, and national pride at stake, this dispute threatens to destabilize the region and even draw the United States into a conflict.

Exercising sovereignty over the South China Sea would be a strategic boon for China given that more than half of the world's merchant tonnage, a third of crude oil trade, and half of liquefied natural gas trade travel through the contested waters. And, with its waxing political, economic, and military weight, China seems to be taking a harder line on the issue.

In March 2010, high-ranking Chinese officials reportedly asserted to visiting U.S. dignitaries that the South China Sea claims marked a "core interest" for Beijing—a position that Chinese delegates reaffirmed to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a few months later.

While Chinese officials have subsequently equivocated on the "core interest" claim, they continue to emphasize the protection of China's territorial integrity, which of course includes the South China Sea in their view. A Chinese defense white paper, released in April 2013, declares that China will "resolutely take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Thus, Beijing's reluctance to classify publically the South China Sea as an outright core interest should not be interpreted as it backing down from the dispute as a whole.