South China Sea

views updated May 21 2018

South China Sea

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea within the Pacific Ocean, stretching south to north from the Indonesian Archipelago to the Taiwan Straits, and west to east from the Sino-Vietnamese coastline to the Philippine Archipelago. Ecologically, it is distinguished from the greater Pacific by differences in sea-floor characteristics, weather patterns, and biology. Islands, shoals, and reefs cluster at the basin's center and combine with the dictates of monsoon trade winds and sea currents to determine the contour of shipping channels along the basin's rim. Outer islands open to five narrow straits, "chokepoints" through which nearly all pan-Asian vessels must channel. In fact, over 50 percent of the world's shipping courses through the Melaka, Lombok, and Sunda Straits alone. The lay of the sea, the traffic within it and through it, the plural societies and hybrid cultures created by it, and the rich resources within their grasp create a common political economy for inhabitants of the littoral, and a region of dense interaction and frequent conflict.

Signs of cross-cultural exchanges based on coastal relays and limited cross-sea travel date back almost 4,000 years, intensifying by the first century c.e., when port polities emerged. Through the first millennium c.e. these either evolved into large-scale maritime states such as Champa, Srivijaya, and Majapahit, or were absorbed by the Chinese Empire. Shipping modes expanded from coastal craft to deep-sea vessels, and oceanic transit grew. Local incenses, gems, metals, resins, shells, spices, medicinals, slaves, and a variety of animal products were traded in regional markets and exported throughout Afro-Eurasia. Seaports grew, fostering polyglot communities from within and beyond the region. After 1000 c.e. the Chinese trade presence grew exponentially, peaking with the voyages of Zheng He in the early fifteenth century. Soon after, the Ming court enforced a ban against maritime trade. Although never completely successful, the ban forced a major restructuring of commercial production and trade. Opportunistic industries and ports developed in Southeast Asia as clandestine trade fairs appeared on China's offshore islands. Piracy flourished. Into this ambiguous but dynamic environment, the first Europeans arrived.

During the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, the South China Sea's role in the nascent global economy took shape. Drawn to the legendary "Spice Islands," Europeans inserted themselves into traditional trade, exporting Southeast Asian raw materials from the hinterlands—aromatics, medicinals, spices, hardwoods, precious metals, gems, and other luxuries—in exchange for ceramics, metalworks, weapons, paper, cloth, and other commodities manufactured in India, China, and elsewhere, to be distributed across Asia and beyond. Cash crops became important commodities as well, and plantations of sugar, jute, tobacco, and coffee introduced new plants and new forms of labor. Opportunities created by China's trade ban grew more lucrative when severed Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations created a demand for intermediaries in an illegal Chinese silk for Japanese silver exchange. China's silver market also inspired the first regular trans-Pacific trade as Spanish galleons from Acapulco brought silver to Manila. Despite the European presence, Chinese and Indian syndicates, organized around kin, religious, and social ties, still dominated long-distance trade and shipping in the South China Sea. Local groups controlled most of the smaller interisland trade, which was also organized along ethnic and religious lines. Whereas early European traders from Spain and Portugal were bound by Church and monarch patronage, Dutch and English enterprises, arriving in the seventeenth century, operated through chartered companies organized around shareholders. Company control over much of Southeast Asia's islands grew as remnant Hindu-Buddhist monarchies and competing sultanates fragmented, but the mainland powers thwarted European domination and moved towards political consolidation.

By the 1850s Europeans monopolized long-distance shipping and naval power, as they moved aggressively towards colonial rule over both islands and mainland. Piracy and smuggling continued to haunt Chinese and European authorities, as well as international merchants, into the nineteenth century and beyond, as marginalized local traders created an "undertow" of clandestine traffic that eluded British and Dutch naval patrols. Illegal opium trade into China precipitated two wars between Britain and China by 1860, which destroyed the long-standing tributary and "Cohong" systems of managing foreign trade. By 1900 Europeans dominated or indeed ruled all the sea's major ports. Large-scale migration of laborers to rapidly growing plantations and cities led to an urban transformation as major coastal cities began to take shape. Massive expansions of plantation agriculture, forestry, and mining, and the production of rubber, tin, and other industrial commodities further redefined shipping.

World War II left the United States the region's undisputed naval power, though it may soon face a reviving Chinese force. The region's arguably successful development has led to serious problems of depletion and pollution of both sea and littoral. Energy remains a critical problem, too. Asia is largely oil dependent, and if development continues at its present rate, is expected to consume as much as 95 percent of all Mideast crude oil, which will lead to a large increase in traffic through the sea's chokepoints. If offshore oil fields in the center of the South China Sea are ever developed, tense and longstanding territorial disputes over the Spratly and Paracel Islands will likely flare, dragging the region into a potentially dangerous conflict. Oil or no oil, trade and shipping will inevitably grow, and with it, piracy, which currently thrives and continues to worsen. Globalization threatens to exacerbate these problems, though the imperative for solutions may grow in tandem with the world's dependence upon the region for resources, production, and as one of the world's key shipping interchanges.

SEE ALSO Bullion (Specie); Burma; Canton System; China; Climate; Commodity Money; Cotton; De Rhodes, Alexandre; Drugs, Illicit; East India Company, British; East India Company, Dutch; East India Company, Other; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; Empire, Japanese; Empire, Ming; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, Qing; Empire, Spanish; EntrepÔt System; Ethnic Groups, Cantonese; Ethnic Groups, Fujianese; Factories; Gold and Silver; Guangzhou;Hong Kong;Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank; Imperialism;Indian Ocean; Indonesia; Japan;Laborers, Coerced;Laborers, Contract;Lee Kuan Yew;Melaka;Nagasaki;Nanyang Brothers Tobacco;Philippines;Piracy;Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford;Rice;Shipbuilding;Shipping, Coastal;Ship Types;Thailand;Silk;Singapore;Spices and the Spice Trade;Sugar, Molasses, and Rum;Tea;Textiles;Travelers and Travel;Vietnam;Zheng Family.


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Charles Wheeler

South China Sea

views updated May 14 2018

South China Sea Part of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by se China, Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines, and Taiwan; connected to the East China Sea by the Formosa Strait. The world's largest sea, its chief arms are the Gulf of Tonkin and Gulf of Thailand. The Si, Red, Mekong, and Chao Phraya rivers flow into it. Area: 2.3 million sq km (848,000sq mi). Average depth: 1140m (3740ft).

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South China Sea