The South China Sea is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with trillions of dollars’ worth of trade passing through it each year. Some analysts estimate China lays claim to as much as 90 percent of the South China Sea, including a number of islands and reefs.
The United States has often argued that China’s militarization threatens free trade and unobstructed shipping traffic.
Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany have all echoed this concern.
Radio Free Asia analysis of shipping data through the waters has suggested commercial shops have been avoiding certain areas, even though doing so results in longer routes.
Shipping boats outside Hong Kong - data suggests militarisation is affecting Souht China Sea routes
It reports: “Data gathered by MarineTraffic, an online service that tracks ships, shows that between 2016 and 2017, most ships carrying oil or cargo were going around the Paracels, increasing traffic to the area’s southeast and northwest, although a more direct route through the Paracels would decrease fuel costs.”
By contrast, University College London data showed that in 2012 ships would more frequently pass directly through the Paracel Islands, two years before parts of the islands were militarised.
Despite this, experts told RFA the impact on shipping routes was minor.
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Philippine marines watch Chinese ships off the coast of the Spratly Islands
Johan Gott from political risk advising firm PRISM told the news outlet: “In peacetime, I don’t see there being significant disruption to the flow of goods.”
However, military drills have in the past established temporary ‘no-go’ areas through which commercial ships cannot pass.
The US-based ChinaPower project reports it would be in China’s interest to ensure commercial trade routes through the South China Sea remain open, claiming more than 64 percent of China’s trade passed through the area in 2016.
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This week, China conducted a fresh military exercise near the Paracel Islands
It added: “Given the significance of the South China Sea for Chinese trade, Beijing may be more inclined to take steps to preserve the free flow of trade than it is to disrupt regional trade flows.
“Dire circumstances may compel China to take disruptive action, but this would come at a considerable financial cost to China, greatly degrade China’s standing among other countries, and could precipitate an assertive response by outside powers.
In any case, China announced another round of military drills near the South China Sea’s disputed Paracel Islands this week.
China's claims to the Paracel Islands are contested by Vietnam and Taiwan
Yesterday, Beijing’s Maritime Safety Administration banned ships from entering two particular zones near to the islands between the hours of 7am and 3pm due to the exercises.
Details of the drills were not given, though the South China Morning Post claims live fire exercises were involved.
Yesterday’s exercises are the third such naval drills to take place near the Paracel Islands this year, with two others having taken place in June and July.
In both cases, Vietnam – which disputes China’s claim to the Paracel Islands – and the United States strongly criticised them. The Paracel Islands are also claimed by Taiwan.
The US has also conducted military drills in the South China Sea amid tense rhetoric between it and China
Vietnam said July’s exercises amounted to a “serious violation” of the country’s sovereignty.
The country’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lethi Thu Hang said officials had urged China not to repeat the drills in future.
The US also conducted military exercises in the area in July in what analysts said was a show of force.
The country has hotly contested China’s presence in the waters, accusing it of a “campaign of bullying”.