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Territorial Disputes: The South China Seas

Territorial Disputes: The South China Seas

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By: Lauren Webb This article will be the first in a monthly series on Territorial Disputes throughout the world here on EJIA. The goal is to offer some background and context to disputes that persist to this day. With the ongoing escalation of rhetoric in the China Seas, it only seemed appropriate to begin with the South China Seas.

This summer has been a hot one In the South China Seas—both in temperature and the tempers of China and the Southeast Asian countries who claim the same territories in the South China Sea. Not a week has gone by since April without new actions and statements by the various claimants. As things escalate simultaneously in the East China Sea, one has to wonder what is prompting China and the other claimants to continue to play such a dangerous game.

The Islands in Question

Within the South China Sea, there are hundreds of small (mostly uninhabited) islands. Fortunately for us, however, the islands are grouped into three archipelagos and two smaller groups, Macclesfield Bank (which is entirely underwater) and Scarborough Shoal. The most actively disputed at this time are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal.

  • The Spratly Islands: The largest of the archipelagos, these islands are claimed by Brunei (as part of its EEZ), China (as part of the newly established Sansha city in Hainan province),[i] Malaysia (as part of the state of Sabah), the Philippines (as part of Palawan province), Taiwan (as part of Kaohsung municipality), and Vietnam (as part of Khành Hòa Province). These islands are without indigenous inhabitants and arable land, but they do have various fishing ports, docks, harbors, and airships built by claimants. It is believed that the Spratly Islands are located close to unexplored oil and gas deposits.
  • The Paracel Islands: These islands, called the Xisha Islands in China, are claimed by China as part of Sansha City, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The only human residents are fishermen and military personnel, but the Paracel Islands are also believed to be potential oil and gas reserves.
  • Scarborough Shoal is a collection of rocks and reefs claimed by China (also as part of Sansha City), the Philippines, and Taiwan
  • The Pratas Islands include three islands forming an atoll controlled by Taiwan, but also claimed by the People’s Republic of China.
  • Macclesfield Bank is an entirely underwater atoll east of the Paracel Islands. Parts of the bank are claimed by China, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Historical claims

This summer’s dispute over the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines served as one of the most severely tense crises of this summer. China attempts to corroborate its claims to this area with reports of trips made by Chinese explorers over 2,000 years ago and map published in 1947, which was “recognized by no other state.”[ii] The claims of the Philippines are more recent, including a lighthouse and flag established on the island in the 1960s and proximity. China has attempted to modernize its claims by sending fishing expeditions and patrol boats throughout the disputed waters (a strategy which it has employed throughout the South China Sea). This resulted in a 2-month standoff starting in April, when the Filipino navy attempted to stop several Chinese fishermen, an act which China viewed as aggressive.[iii]

The Spratly Islands, meanwhile, have been home to several clashes between the Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese governments since the 1970’s. Back then, Vietnam was arguably the key aggressor, unilaterally claiming an Exclusive Economic Zone that clearly overlapped with the EEZs of other Southeastern countries and deploying fishing vessels in these areas.[iv] As the region became more concerned with the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and the presence of the Soviet Union, the South China Sea became less of an immediate issue.

Also of note are the so-called “Mischief Reef Incidents” of 1995 and 1999 in the Spratly Islands. In the three years leading up to the first incident, China passed the Territorial Waters Law, in which it claimed control over the South China Sea, published a map which showed its territorial waters extending into land claimed by Indonesia, and facilitated a contract between China Offshore Oil Corporation and Crestone Energy Corporation regarding an area claimed by Vietnam.[v] In another act of aggression, in 1994, China began to occupy Mischief Reef—the first time it occupied a reef claimed by the Philippines, or any ASEAN country for that matter. Despite a joint statement between China and the Philippines to “resolve” the issue in 1995, China renewed building on Mischief Reef in 1999.[vi]

Why now?

Although the territorial disputes in the South China Seas were never been considered permanently resolved, they have become more relevant over the past several years, particularly this summer.  This is by-and-large the result of China’s increased assertion in the region, which can be attributed to China’s growing influence and the inability of the other states in question to unite to resolve these conflicts. At the same time, China is increasingly concerned with the United States’ involvement in the region—particularly since its declared “pivot towards Asia”—and sees the US as de facto supporter of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan in the East China Sea.

Consider the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). If there was any organization that could have facilitated resolution from within Southeast Asia (without outside intervention), it was ASEAN. There was the opportunity for the other states to unite and assert to China that their claims must also be respected. However, in the summer of 2011, ASEAN was content with an agreement that did not resolve disputed territory in the South China Seas, or the use of underwater resources in disputed areas.[vii] This likely only reinforced the idea to China that it could claim what it liked in the sea without consequences.

When the time came for this year’s ASEAN meeting in July, tensions over the Sea were already high. This meeting, however, proved to be ineffective in resolving tensions for several reasons. There are disputes between ASEAN members, as well as close ties to the US or China for some countries. (Some countries, particularly in light of recent financial aid from China to Cambodia, have accused Cambodia of “stonewalling” the meetings in Support of China.)[viii] Additionally, ASEAN’s model of consensus makes it difficult—if not impossible at times such as this—to resolve a dispute on which countries are unwilling to compromise. By the end of the meeting, Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan was quoted calling the summit an “’unprecedented’ failure in ASEAN’s history.”[ix]

Where to Go From Here

Territorial claims are often the most difficult to resolve. What country wishes to risk the appearance of weakness in the eyes of its people and the world to “give up” land which it views as its own? However, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are “not in interest of the Asian countries, it’s certainly not in the interest of the United States or the rest of the world, to raise doubts and uncertainties about the stability and peace in the region.”[x]

So far, the states have not moved towards a process of dialogue. China, Vietnam, and the Philippines have tried to increase their physical and economic claims by placing fishing boats and paramilitary vessels throughout the South China Sea, while also claiming oil and gas rights. Both China National Offshore Oil Company and the Philippines[xi] have requested bids for the disputed territories.

One option to resolve the dispute, in theory, is through invoking the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and settling the claims through an international tribunal. In the past, the Filipino government has tried. China, however, refuses. This shows that the Chinese government is aware of the weakness of its own claims—which often rely on old maps and ancient discoveries—over islands that are found within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of other countries. It also reflects the unwillingness of the Chinese government to compromise on or discuss territorial disagreements, even in those areas over which it does not exert actual control (see also Taiwan and the Senkaku/Daiyou Islands).

If China is to continue in its role as a growing world power, China should use international arbitration and dialogue to settle disputes, rather than bullying tactics and questionable claims. As a signatory of UNCLOS, China (and all claimants in the sea) has a responsibility to respect a transparent, international settlement in the South China Seas.

Lauren Webb is a junior at Emory University majoring in Political Science and History. She is spending the Fall semester at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan. Her research and academic interests focus on India, China, and Japan, with a particular interest in the U.S.-Asia relationship.


[i] “China Media: South China Sea Move,” BBC, June 22, 2012, sec. China, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-18546138.

[ii] Max Boot, “China Starts to Claim the Seas,” Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2012, sec. Opinion, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304782404577486302897095274.html.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ang Cheng Guan, “The South China Sea Dispute Re-Visited” (presented at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies Working Paper Series, Singapore: Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, 1999), 1–2, http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/WorkingPapers/WP04.pdf.

[v] Ibid., 8.

[vi] Ibid., 10.

[vii] “South China Sea: From Bad to Worse?,” Council on Foreign Relations, n.d., http://www.cfr.org/china/south-china-sea-bad-worse/p28739.

[viii] “China Gives Cambodia Aid and Thanks for ASEAN Help,” Reuters (Phnom Penh, September 4, 2012), http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/04/us-cambodia-china-idUSBRE88306I20120904.

[ix] “South China Sea.”

[x] “US Warns Asia Heads over Disputes,” BBC, September 9, 2012, sec. Asia, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19538066.

[xi] “Philippines to Bid Out Disputed South China Sea Oil, Gas Blocks,” Reuters (Manila, July 30, 2012), http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/30/us-southchinasea-philippines-idUSBRE86T1K820120730.

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