Submarine Collision Highlights Turbulent South China Sea

Chin Yoon Chin


Navigating through or under the water can be very trying when the area that one is transiting or operating is not well surveyed and charted. A vast area in the Spratly and Paracel island chain in the South China Sea is covered with corals and seamounts which could grow or pop up after a seismic disturbance. It is believed that there are vast areas of oil and gas deposits and precious metal in its depth, and it is also a rich fishing ground for these states bordering the South China Sea. For the past two decades or so, six littoral parties (China, The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan) have staked claims over this body of water.
In recent years, the United States has been challenging China’s legitimacy to the claim by conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) through China’s claimed areas. Why the US employed a submarine-like USS Connecticut to the South China Sea and for what purpose is anyone’s guess. Whatever task the submarine had undertaken, if it had operated within the confine of the gazetted sea lanes, it would not have run into this incident.
The most likely situation was it operated “outside the normal” operational area when the incident occurred. It is believed that China’s underwater technology has improved over the last decades. This incident, in a way, has hyped up military activities in the South China Sea. The turbulence will not subside but will result in further escalation of tension which all the countries in this region would not want it to happen. To manage and mitigate tension, confidence-building and dialogues among all parties concerned are necessary to set aside differences, have mutual respect, and achieve the common goal of enhancing safe navigation and protecting the environment, instead of creating doubts and suspicions.

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