South China Sea Dispute


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.


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

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

Key actors

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

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

claims sovereignty over all the island groups in the region and jurisdiction over adjacent waters such Spratlys, Paracel, Pratas, Macclesfield Bank, and Taiping Island

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.

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.

claims parts of the Spratly Islands (25 features) and the Paracel Islands based on historical evidence, economic development and international recognition.

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.

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.

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

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.

Timeline of the crisis

  • 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.

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

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

South Vietnam occupies much of the Spratly Islands

Malaysia occupies three Spratly Islands

Vietnamese sailors killed in skirmish with China near the Spratly Islands

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

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

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

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.

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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