South China Sea Dispute


The South China Sea Dispute is the result of national pride, trade implications, military ambition as well as historic and symbolic attachments. This disagreement is fought between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia.  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.

The USA 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. The U.S. believe that under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), different claimants of the region should have access freely navigate the sea and conduct military operations within it. Currently, U.S. naval fleets patrol the area whilst the Chinese continue to create new man-made islands in the region.


Where: A marginal sea in the pacific. South of China, East of Vietnam, West of the Philippines, east of the Malay Peninsula and north of Borneo.

Deaths: Approx. 150

Number of Islands: 250

Trade worth of the South China Sea:  5.3 trillion worth of goods transit the region annually

Oil resources in the region: Approximately 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

Value of  U.S. Trade: Approximately 1.2 trillion

Artificial Islands: 7 reclamation projects across 7 locations (Chinese projects)

Beijing: Reclaimed more than 3,200 acres since late 2015, more land than all other claimants 

The Philippines: Along with China, they both lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island in China) which is 160km from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

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. China doesn’t believe that external military forces should have access to the South China Sea as they believe it lies within their Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ). China’s sovereignty over the region has caused significant backlash as it denies the freedom of navigation to other states or access to resources.

The Philippines 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. President Duterte continues to fight for the Philippines “right” to extract resources from the sea whilst attempting to settle differences with China.

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. Taiwan has faced extreme backlash from China, who continues to try to diminish Taiwan’s presence in the region.

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. Vietnam has continuously come up against China’s extensive naval power and has been vocal against the Chinese offensive. 

The USA 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. The U.S. believe that under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), different claimants of the region should have access freely navigate the sea and conduct military operations within it.

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 Court 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 is a 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.

Russia’s presence is the South China Sea is rather new and although Russia has not put forward any claims towards the South China Sea, its involvement remains complex. This is due to Russia’s growing interest in the region, its strong relationship with Vietnam and its growing relationship with China as well the Philippines.

Japan gained exclusive rights over several South China Sea archipelagos and took control of the Pratas Islands from September 3, 1937. Japan relies upon the South China Sea for resources, oil and as an export route. Tensions between Japan and China continue over the East China Sea, specifically because Japan claimed the Diaoyu islands in 1895.

Timeline of the crisis

After Japan gained exclusive rights over several South China Sea archipelagos, Japan took control of the Pratas Islands from September 3, 1937.

The Japanese Imperial Navy arrived on the Spratlys and invaded the Hainan Island the following February. Japan’s invasion followed the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 1937, which was a battle between the China’s National Revolutionary Army and the Japanese Imperial Army. This marked the Japanese invasion of China.

After the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, the U.S. took control of Japan. This involved the Ryukyu Islands, which were seen as holding a strategic significance at a time of spreading communism.

  • Under the Chiang Kai-shek government, China demarcates its territorial claims in South China Sea with an eleven-dash-line that claims the waters adjacent to Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Kuomintang-led government of China made repeated claims to the Ryukyu islands and in April 1948 calls for their return.

Mao Zedong announces the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ending the civil war that breaks out shortly after World War II. Defeated Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek escapes to Taiwan, where he creates a régime in exile.

The U.S. and forty-seven other nations sign the Treaty of Peace (PDF) with Japan in San Francisco, officially ending World War II. Japan renounces all claims to Korea, Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

China removes the Gulf of Tonkin portion, erasing two dashes from its original territorial claims, in effect reducing it to a nine-dash-line

The United States and Japan sign the bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. This is a ten-year, renewable agreement stipulating that any attack on territories under Japan’s administration would require action by both countries. Washington has consistently asserted that the treaty covers the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, though it has refrained from explicitly endorsing Japan’s sovereignty claim over the islands.

After thorough geological surveys that took place between 1968 and 1969, a report published by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East. The report found significant energy deposits in the seabed between Taiwan and Japan; which are the waters off of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. This paper reignited interest in the region. Although China had not previously disputed Japanese claims to the islands, it asserted its own sovereignty over them in May 1970. This occurs after Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan hold conferences on joint energy extraction of the East China Sea.

The Philippines occupy five of the Spratly Islands and claim the entire Western part of the archipelago

The United States and Japan sign the Okinawa Reversion Treaty, in which Washington effectively returns full control of the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. The move is seen as reinforcing the U.S.-Japan security alliance. In response to the reversion treaty, the ROC and PRC begin issuing claims to the islands, saying they have belonged to the Chinese since ancient times and have been administered by the province of Taiwan. Meanwhile, Japan views the reversion agreement with the United States as further validation of its sovereignty over the disputed islands.

China captures Paracel Islands which had previously been occupied by South Vietnam

China and Japan formally re-establish diplomatic relations after gradually rebuilding economic ties. In China, the failure of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) preceding the Cultural Revolution resulted in mass starvation that forced Beijing to reevaluate its domestic policies and look to Japan for aid. The Sino-Japanese reconciliation dovetails the rapprochement between the United States and China—a change in official political allegiance from Taipei to Beijing that is a crucial factor in the establishment of diplomatic ties between Japan and China. Trade between Japan and China surges in the period after normalization, deescalating the first round of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands disputes.

South Vietnam occupies much of the Spratly Islands. A year after the Paris Peace Accords, which end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Chinese forces occupy (PDF) the western portion of the Paracel Islands, planting flags on several islands and seizing a South Vietnamese garrison. Vietnamese troops flee south and establish the first permanent Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands. Meanwhile, Beijing builds a military installation, including an airfield and artificial harbor, on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels. After the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam, the newly formed Socialist Republic of Vietnam upholds the South’s former claims to the Spratlys and Paracels. To this day, China maintains around one thousand troops in the Paracels.

After an extensive exploration program, the Philippines finds the Nido oil field off the coast of Palawan Island, marking the first oil discovery in the Northwest Palawan Basin. The discovery comes four years after the government passes the Oil Exploration and Development Act of 1972, which provides the legal basis for exploring and developing petroleum resources as Manila pushes for energy independence. Philippine Cities Service, Inc., the country’s first oil company, begins drilling a well in the Nido oil field and launches commercial production in 1979, yielding 8.8 million barrels that year. In 2012, the IMF notes (PDF) that the Philippines’ petroleum industry may have “significant potential” in the South China Sea, which is adjacent to the Northwest Palawan Basin.

China wages a short but bloody war with Vietnam, launching an offensive in response to Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978, which ended the reign of the communist, Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. The conflict marks the apex of tensions between Beijing and Hanoi, which were already running high after Vietnam established ties with the Soviet Union, China’s Cold War rival, the previous November. China had aided Vietnam in its wars against both France and the United States. Although both sides claim victory, China withdraws from Vietnam after less than a month, having failed to coerce Vietnam to leave Cambodia. Roughly thirty thousand are killed in the short-lived conflict, which marks the beginning of many border disputes between Beijing and Hanoi and bolsters Vietnam’s lingering distrust of China.

After three decades of negotiations, the third and final United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, culminates in a resolution that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of surrounding waters based on exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. The measure comes into force on November 14, 1994, a year after Guyana becomes the sixtieth nation to sign the treaty. UNCLOS does not address sovereignty issues related to the South and East China Seas, and its vague wording has prevented it from serving as a credible body of law in resolving territorial disputes. Although the United States recognizes UNCLOS as customary international law, it has yet to ratify the treaty—a move that would give Washington a greater platform from which it could advance its economic and strategic interests.

Malaysia occupies three Spratly Islands

Vietnamese sailors killed in skirmish with China near the Spratly Islands

After roughly a decade of relative calm in the South China Sea, China and Vietnam clash on the Johnson Reef, marking China’s first armed conflict over the Spratly archipelago. The Chinese navy sinks three Vietnamese vessels, killing seventy-four sailors in one of the most serious military confrontations in the South China Sea. The incident occurs after Beijing, pursuing a more assertive stance in the area, establishes a physical presence on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys in January 1987. In response, Vietnam occupies several reefs to monitor China’s moves. The incident unfolds amid Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1980s, when Chinese economic activity begins shifting to the coastal provinces, and maritime resources become increasingly prized as hydrocarbons are needed to sustain growth.

China invokes international law to expand its sea territorial to formalize its claim to both the Paracels and Spratlys

China passes the Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which lays claim to the entire South China Sea based on its historical right to the area dating from the Xia dynasty, which ruled between the twenty-first and sixteenth centuries BCE. The law employs more generous methods of territorial determination that would not necessarily be recognized (PDF) and justified by UNCLOS, signed a decade earlier. The move is seen by some as a bid by China to obtain greater maritime security for itself, as Beijing was one of the most active countries at UNCLOS in attempting to obstruct the United States and Soviet Union’s efforts to secure freedom of navigation for warships.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, goes into effect after 60 countries ratify it, including China and the Philippines.

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

Three Chinese naval vessels fight a ninety-minute battle with a Philippine navy gunboat near Capones Island in the Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly chain of islands claimed by Manila. The incident marks the first time China engages in military confrontation with an ASEAN member other than Vietnam. The clash, which triggers a crisis in Sino-Philippine relations, revives U.S.-Philippine military ties; soon after the incident, U.S. Navy SEALs conduct a joint exercise with their Philippine counterparts on Palawan Island, although Philippine President Fidel Ramos denies that this is connected to Manila’s row with Beijing. Tensions over the occupation subside by midyear, when the Philippines and China sign a nonbinding code of conduct that calls for a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute and the promotion of confidence-building measures.

The Philippines detains Chinese fishing boats on numerous occasions for alleged illegal fishing in its territorial waters. They also clash over Scarborough Islands

China and the United States sign the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (PDF), the first bilateral military agreement between the two countries, which serves as a confidence-building measure after a period of frozen relations following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. From the mid-to-late 1990s, the Clinton administration works toward security engagement with Beijing as China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) begins to shift from being a mostly coastal defense force to operating a blue-water fleet beyond Chinese territorial waters. The accord aims to promote defense dialogue between naval forces to prevent misunderstandings. However, its efficacy is questioned in April 2001, when a Chinese F-8 interceptor and a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft collide over the South China Sea, killing a Chinese pilot.

China and the ten ASEAN states reach an agreement in Phnom Penh on the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a code of conduct that seeks to ease tensions and creates guidelines for conflict resolution. The agreement comes after six years of negotiations. Beijing had previously insisted on bilateral negotiations with claimants; China’s signing marks the first time it accepts a multilateral approach to the issue. Though the declaration falls short of a binding code of conduct, as the Philippines had sought, it signals China’s recognition that such an agreement could work in its favor by limiting the risk of conflict in the area, which could involve the United States in the dispute.

After years of dispute over gas fields in the East China Sea, Japan and China sign a Joint Energy Development Agreement that includes the potentially gas-rich Chunxiao/Shirakaba field. The two countries agree to explore four fields jointly, halt development in contested waters, and collaborate on joint surveys and investment. While the accord is hailed as a major step toward maritime cooperation on energy resources—a strategic priority for both countries—China soon begins to develop the Tianwaitian/Kashi field unilaterally in 2009, stirring protest from Japan. A year later, Japan threatens to bring China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea if China begins producing from the Chunxiao/Shirakaba field. Despite the milestone agreement, little has been done since then to increase joint resource development.

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.

The International Energy Agency reports that China has surpassed the United States as the largest consumer of energy worldwide, consuming roughly 2.3 billion tons of total energy in 2009, approximately 4 percent more than the United States. China also becomes the second-largest consumer and net importer of oil, heightening the strategic importance of trade routes in the East and South China Seas for tanker shipments. The United States had been the world’s largest energy consumer since the early 1990s.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterates Washington’s neutrality on sovereignty in the South China Sea in a speech at an Asian regional security meeting in Hanoi, but affirms American interests in the “open access to Asia’s maritime commons.” The speech represents a rebuke to China, which had insisted on its rights to the islands and a bilateral approach to resolving disputes. It also comes at a time when military-to-military talks between Beijing and Washington are suspended and diplomatic relations are at a nadir, with China rescinding an invitation to host former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June and Chinese officials announcing in March that they would not tolerate outside interference. Clinton’s comments are viewed as an expansion of U.S. involvement in the disputes and a boon to Vietnam, which had been attempting to internationalize the conflict in hopes of a resolution.

A Chinese fishing boat collides with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, prompting Japan to arrest the crew. Beijing protests the move, enforcing an unofficial embargo on rare earth minerals and arresting four Japanese businessmen for trespassing on a Chinese military facility. China also refuses a meeting between then Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the UN General Assembly. After two weeks of escalating tension, the two countries agree to release their respective citizens. Diplomatic relations finally thaw when Japan’s prime minister and China’s premier meet “coincidentally” on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit in Brussels in October, 2010. The incident underscores the fragility of the management of the territorial dispute, and sparks debate over Japan’s ability to defend its interests in the face of China’s rise.

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

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

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

China submits claims to the East China Sea to the UN following the purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by Japan’s governments

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.

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.

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

Joint US-Philippine military exercises take place near Scarborough Shoal

China returns US underwater drone seized near the Philippines in the South China Sea

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

Indonesia names the Natuna Sea as part of its maritime claim in the South China Sea

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.

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.

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

U.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.

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.

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.

 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.”

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.

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.

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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