South China Sea Dispute

“It’s easier for China to assert its maritime power
by creating artificial islands in the South China
Sea than by defying the U.S. Pacific Fleet with an
aircraft carrier.”
– David Ignatius



              A marginal sea in the in the Pacific,                   encompassing area of 3.6 million                        square km south of  China; east                            of Vietnam; west of the Philippines;                    east of the Malay peninsula; north                      of Borneo


             China – 1,403,500,365,
             Taiwan – 23,550,077,
             Brunei – 423,196,
             Vietnam – 94,569,072,
             The Philippines – 100,981,437,
             Malaysia – 31,727,000,
             Indonesia – 261,115,456


              Since 1947: Vietnamese – 98,                                  Chinese – 54

     Number of Islands:

              250 islands, including the Spratly                       Islands and the Paracel Islands

      Artificial Islands:

              Seven ‘reclamation projects across                     seven’ locations: Subi Reef,                                     Mischief Reef, Johnson South Reef,                     Hughes Reef Gaven Reefs, Fiery                           Cross Reef, and Cuarteron Reef.



National pride, military ambition, historic and symbolic attachments and trillions of dollars-worth of trade have led to a fierce territorial dispute currently being fought among seven claimants—Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan,  Vietnam and Indonesia—over the South China Sea. The rich and bountiful oil reserves hidden in those waters has added another layer to the dispute(s). At various points during the past half-century, the disputes have led to skirmishes and legal issues between the claimants. The China-US battle for supremacy in the international order has only raised the stakes in the region. And it appears likely, that the dispute, based on recent developments—including the construction and militarization of islands—will continue to generate further controversies for the foreseeable future


                 Key Actors:

  • China – has backed its territorial claims over all South China Sea islands with island-building and naval patrols. It claims that the islands in question have belonged to China since ancient times
  • The Phillipines – claims sovereignty over Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. It invokes its’ geographical proximity to the latter—located 100 miles off its shores—as the basis for its claim
  • Taiwan – claims sovereignty over all the island groups in the region and jurisdiction over adjacent waters such Spratlys, Paracel, Pratas, Macclesfield Bank, and Taiping Island
  • Malaysia – claims a portion of an area north of Borneo, which encompasses at least 12 features in the Spratlys. This area is within Malaysia’s maritime jurisdiction, but they remain relatively quiet about the issue.
  • Brunei – holds claim (since 1984) to 200 square nautical miles of the South China Sea.Its claim includes Bombay Castle, Louisa Reef (claimed by Vietnam and China), Owen Shoal and Rifleman Bank of the Spratly Island chain.
  • Vietnam – claims parts of the Spratly Islands (25 features) and the Paracel Islands based on historical evidence, economic development and international recognition.
  • The U.S. – has long criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the South China Sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement—of considerable significance since an estimate $1.2 trillion of US-traded goods pass through this sea every year. Recently, the US has been pushing allies to carry out freedom of navigation operations as well.
  • Indonesia  claims the center on the Natuna Sea, a resource-rich waterway north of Indonesia that also lies close to Vietnam exclusive economic zone. They have begun increasing their military presence in the disputed territory.
  • The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague  arbitrated and ruled in favour of the Philippines in the case brought against China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, lacks an enforcement mechanism
  • ASEAN – ten-member regional body that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Holds regular consultations with China aimed at developing a multilateral framework toward greater cooperation and conflict resolution.



  • 1947 – China demarcates its territorial claims in South China Sea with an 11-dash-line
  • 1953 – China removes the Gulf of Tonkin portion, erasing two dashes from its original territorial claims, in effect reducing it to a nine-dash-line
  • 1970 – The Philippines occupy five of the Spratly Islands and claim the entire Western part of the archipelago
  • 1971 – China captures Paracel Islands which had previously been occupied by South Vietnam
  • 1974 – South Vietnam occupies much of the Spratly Islands
  • 1983 – Malaysia occupies three Spratly Islands
  • 1988 – Vietnamese sailors killed in skirmish with China near the Spratly Islands
  • 1991 – China invokes international law to expand its sea territorial to formalize its claim to both the Paracels and Spratlys
  • 1994 – The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, goes into effect after 60 countries ratify it, including China and the Philippines.
  • 1995 – China captures Mischief Reef from the Philippines roughly 700 miles from China’s nearest island, Hainan, and well inside the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone
  • 1997 to mid-2000s – The Philippines detains Chinese fishing boats on numerous occasions for alleged illegal fishing in its territorial waters. They also clash over Scarborough Islands
  • 2009 – China submits its nine-dash-line map to the United Nations, stating it “has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia protest the Chinese claim.
  • October, 2011 – Gas giant, Exxon Mobil discovers oil off Vietnam’s coast in an area claimed by China. The discovery prompts the Philippine and Vietnamese leaders to agree to reinforce their maritime cooperation in the regions
  • April 2012 – Both the US and the Philippines hold a join-military exercise during a standoff over China’s illegal harvesting of coral and other sea life off of the Scarborough Shoal
  • June 2012 – Vietnam passes a new maritime law claiming sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands; China raises the administrative status of the disputed islands to prefecture level
  • December 2012 – China submits claims to the East China Sea to the UN following the purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by Japan’s governments
  • January 2013 – China refuses to participate in Philippine-initiated arbitration over China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague.
  • November 2013 – Both the US and China antagonize each other, with China announcing an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands. The US flies two jets through the airspace in response to this.
  • May 2014 – China moves an oil rig to Paracel Island, prompting protests in Vietnam, which in turn damages businesses with ties to China. China later removed the rig
  • September 2014 – Joint US-Philippine military exercises take place near Scarborough Shoal
  • December 2016 – China returns US underwater drone seized near the Philippines in the South China Sea
  • 12 July 2016The Permanent Court of arbitration in The Hague rules in favour of the Philippines in its case against China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.
  • 19 May 2017President Duterte, says China had threatened to go to war if he pushed the South China Sea issue. This followed a meeting between himself and China’s Xi Jinping
  • August 2017 – US Navy destroyer carries out a “freedom of navigation operation”, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea
  • September 2017 – Indonesia names the Natuna Sea as part of its maritime claim in the South China Sea
  • 6 February 2018 – officials attending an ASEAN foreign ministers’ Retreat agree to work towards the conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea based on a mutually-agreed timeline.
  • 5 March 2018 – A US warship docks in Vietnam—the first such visit in more than 4 decades. Analyst say the move is designed to counter China’s activities in the South China Sea.
  • 11 March 2018 – US and Japanese naval forces take part in anti-submarine drills in South China Sea. Submarines are considered to be a key component in any future conflict in the region
  • 23 March 2018U.S. Navy destroyer carries out a “freedom of navigation” operation, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island—Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands—built by China in the South China Sea. The operation is the latest attempt by US to counter China’s efforts to limit “freedom of navigation” in the strategic waters.
  • 5 April 2018 – The Chinese navy launches a week-long series of live fire drills in the South China Sea. The drills involve an aircraft carrier and more than 40 vessels, and are a show of China’s military strength on the eve of the US’s own exercises in the region. This is the largest naval review in the country’s modern history.
  • June 2018 – US officials say they plan to send an aircraft carrier group into the Taiwan Strait in response to China’s recent efforts to impose its will over the contested area. The Chinese foreign ministry warned that this could jeopardize China-US peace in the region.
  • 31 August 2018 – British warship the HMS Albion sails through territorial Chinese waters near the Paracel Islands and is warned by the Chinese government to leave, and immediately cease such “provocative actions.”
  • 25 September 2018 – US B-52 bombers fly over the East China Sea in a move Chinese officials called “provocative.” These actions fan the flames of rising tensions between the two nations over trade tariffs.
  • 2 October 2018 – Sailing near the disputed Spratly Islands, US Navy warship the USS Decatur nearly collides with a Chinese destroyer. The US claims the Chinese ship was making unsafe, aggressive maneuvers that resulted in the near collision.
  • 23 October 2018 – China and the nations of ASEAN hold their first joint naval exercises, symbolizing the Southeast nations’ desire to improve trust with China.

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