The waters in the South China Sea are getting hotter every day but this is not due to any climate change event. The biggest kid in this aquatic playground is China and it has been the “bully” with recent aggressive behavior toward the other “playmates” of Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines. And like the protective older sibling, the United States sits poised for action with the USS Ronald Reagan nuclear super-carrier sitting in Philippine waters along with the Seventh Fleet based in Japan.

Here are five things to know about the South China Sea dispute:

  • What is all the hubbub about? The “toys” that the countries are squabbling about are the normal ones associated with global conflicts, namely oil, territorial rights and strategic positioning. The current issues involve China’s Nine Dash Line and the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) claimed by the other countries that overlap in key areas like the Spratly Islands.
  • What is the Nine-Dash Line? The line represents an ambiguous U-shaped demarcation line that begins off the coast of Vietnam and runs southward for about 1,500 kms. It then forms the bottom of the U turning eastward toward East Malaysia where it turns northward and runs along the coasts of Brunei and the Philippines all the way to the Luzon Strait north of the Philippines and south of Taiwan. The line engulfs most of the South China Sea. The line dates to the late 1940’s
  • What is an EEZ? The term stands for Exclusive Economic Zone. In 1982 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gave rights to countries regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind to 200 nautical miles from their shores. The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claimed EEZs. In 2016 a United Nations ruling went the way of the Philippines concerning waters in its EEZ that China has refused to recognize.

  • Why does the South China Sea matter? The sea is a key commercial waterway that connects Asia with India, Europe and Africa. It has oil reserves and other resources in its seabed. Eighty percent of China’s oil arrives via the sea and it is estimated that one-third of all global shipping will pass through it. It is also a major fishing area that serves as a major food source for hundreds of millions of people.
  • What’s going to happen? The best answer to that question is that nobody really knows. The U.S. and China are embroiled in a trade war that might affect how China will act. Using the playground analogy, the other smaller countries will need to choose the side that will benefit them the most and hope they win the tug-o-war.