Territorial disputes in the South China Sea

Territorial claims in the South China Sea
South China Sea claims and agreements.
Map of various national outposts in the Spratly Islands

The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely the Nation of Brunei, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, the Republic of the Philippines, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As a high proportion of the world's trade passes through the South China Sea, there are many non-claimant nations that want the South China Sea to remain as international waters, with several nations (e.g. the United States of America) conducting "freedom of navigation" operations.[1]

The disputes include the islands, reefs and banks of the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel islands, the various boundaries, including those in the Gulf of Tonkin. There is a further dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands which by most definitions are not part of the South China Sea.[2] The interests of the nations include retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas; the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.

In July 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled against China's maritime claims in Philippines v. China,[3] although it is not enforceable. China does not acknowledge the tribunal nor abide by its ruling, insisting that any resolution should be through bilateral negotiations with other claimants.[4]

Specific disputes

Summary of disputes
Area of dispute
The nine-dash line area
Vietnamese coast
Sea area north of Borneo
South China Sea islands
Sea area north of the Natuna Islands
Sea area west of Palawan and Luzon
Sabah area
Luzon Strait

The disputes involve both maritime boundaries and islands.[5] There are several disputes, each of which involved a different collection of countries:

  1. The nine-dash line area claimed by the Republic of China, later People's Republic of China which covers most of the South China sea and overlaps exclusive economic zone claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Singapore has reiterated that it is not a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute and therefore allows Singapore to play a neutral role in being a constructive conduit for dialogue among the claimant states.[6]
  2. Maritime boundary along the Vietnamese coast between PRC, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
  3. Maritime boundary north of Borneo between Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
  4. Islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracels Islands, the Pratas Islands, Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
  5. Maritime boundary in the waters north of the Natuna Islands between China, Indonesia and Taiwan[7]
  6. Maritime boundary off the coast of Palawan and Luzon between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
  7. Maritime boundary, land territory, and the islands of Sabah, including Ambalat, between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
  8. Maritime boundary and islands in the Luzon Strait between the China, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
  9. Maritime boundary and islands in the Pedra Branca (and Middle Rocks) between Singapore and Malaysia. This was resolved amicably between the countries through the court of arbitration and joint committees ( see Pedra Branca).


The area may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits; however, the estimates are highly varied. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People's Republic of China estimate that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). In the years following the announcement by the ministry, the claims regarding the South China Sea islands intensified.[8] However, other sources claim that the proven reserve of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons.[9] According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)'s profile of the South China Sea region, a US Geological Survey estimate puts the region's discovered and undiscovered oil reserves at 11 billion barrels, as opposed to a Chinese figure of 125 billion barrels.[10] The same EIA report also points to the wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 190 trillion cubic feet to 500 trillion cubic feet, likely located in the contested Reed Bank".[10]

The South China Sea is dubbed by China as the "second Persian Sea."[11] The state-owned China Offshore Exploration Corp. planned to spend 200 billion RMB (United States dollar 30 billion) in the next 20 years to exploit oil in the region, with the estimated production of 25 million metric tons of crude oil and natural gas per annum, at a depth of 2000 meters within the next five years.[12]

The Philippines began exploring the areas west of Palawan for oil in 1970. Exploration in the area began in Reed Bank/Tablemount.[13] in 1976, gas was discovered following the drilling of a well.[14] However, China's complaints halted the exploration.

On 27 March 1984, the first Philippine oil company discovered an oil field off Palawan, which is an island province bordering the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.[15] These oil fields supply 15% of annual oil consumption in the Philippines.

The nine-dotted line was originally an "eleven-dotted-line," first indicated by the then Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1947, for its claims to the South China Sea. After, the Communist Party of China took over mainland China and formed the People's Republic of China in 1949. The line was adopted and revised to nine as endorsed by Zhou Enlai.[16]

The legacy of the nine-dotted line is viewed by some Chinese government officials, and by the Chinese military, as providing historical support for their claims to the South China Sea.[17]

In the 1970s, however, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory. On 11 June 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the Spratly Islands (referred to therein as the Kalayaan Island Group) as Philippine territory.[18]

The abundant fishing opportunities within the region are another motivation for the claim. In 1988, the South China Sea is believed to have accounted for 8% of world fishing catches, a figure that has grown since then. There have been many clashes in the Philippines with foreign fishing vessels (including China) in disputed areas. China believes that the value in fishing and oil from the sea has risen to a trillion dollars.

The area is also one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. In the 1980s, at least 270 merchant ships used the route each day. Currently, more than half the tonnage of oil transported by sea passes through it, a figure rising steadily with the growth of Chinese consumption of oil. This traffic is three times greater than that passing through the Suez Canal and five times more than the Panama Canal.

As of 1996, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries asserted claims within the Chinese nine-dotted line[19] The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect on 16 November 1994, resulted in more intense territorial disputes between the parties.

As of 2012, all of the Paracel Islands are under Chinese control.

Eight of the Spratly Islands are under Chinese control; Vietnamese troops control the greatest number of Spratly islands, 29. Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan. In 2012 the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam, while expressing concern over rising tension in the area, said that 50 per cent of its trade passes through the area and called for peaceful resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law.[20]

On 17 March 2016, in accordance with Memorandum Circular No. 94 s. 2016, President Aquino created the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, to secure the State's sovereignty and national territory and preserve marine wealth in its waters and exclusive economic zone, reserving use and enjoyment of the West Philippine Sea exclusively for Filipino citizens.[21]

2011 agreement

On 20 July 2011, the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines which would help resolve the dispute.[22] The agreement was described by the PRC's assistant foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, as "an important milestone document for cooperation among China and ASEAN countries".[22] Some of the early drafts acknowledged aspects such as "marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and combating transnational crime," although the issue of oil and natural gas drilling remains unresolved.

Chinese objection to Indian naval presence and oil exploration

On 22 July 2011, the INS Airavat, an Indian amphibious assault vessel on a friendly visit to Vietnam, was reportedly contacted 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the disputed South China Sea by a party identifying itself as the Chinese Navy and stating that the ship was entering Chinese waters.[23][24] A spokesperson for the Indian Navy explained that as no ship or aircraft was visible, the INS Airavat proceeded on her onward journey as scheduled. The Indian Navy further clarified that "[t]here was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat. India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all."[23]

In September 2011, shortly after China and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea, India's state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said that its overseas investment arm, ONGC Videsh Limited, had signed a three-year agreement with PetroVietnam for developing long-term co-operation in the oil sector, and that it had accepted Vietnam's offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea[25] In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, without referring to India by name, stated as follows:

"China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China's stand is based on historical facts and international law. China's sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long. On the basis of this China is ready to engage in peaceful negotiations and friendly consultations to peacefully solve the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights so as to positively contribute to peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea area. We hope that the relevant countries respect China's position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue. We hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve the bilateral disputes through bilateral channels. As for oil and gas exploration activities, our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China's jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in South China Sea dispute."[26][27]

An Indian foreign ministry spokesman responded, "The Chinese had concerns, but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us and [we] have conveyed this to the Chinese."[26] The Indo-Vietnamese deal was also denounced by the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times.[25][27]


In Spring 2010, Chinese officials reportedly communicated to US officials that the South China Sea is "an area of 'core interest' that is as non-negotiable" and on par with Taiwan and Tibet on the national agenda.[28] but may have backed away from that assertion in 2011.[29][30][31]

In October 2011, China's Global Times newspaper, published by the Communist Party, People's Daily, editorialised on South China Sea territorial disputes under the banner "Don't take peaceful approach for granted". The article referenced recent incidents involving Philippines and South Korea detaining Chinese fishing boats in the region:[32]

"If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved." Global Times (China), 25 October 2011 Responding to questions about whether this reflected official policy, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated the country's commitment "to resolving the maritime dispute through peaceful means."[33]

Alan Dupont of the University of New South Wales has said that the Chinese government appears to be directing its fishing fleet into disputed waters as a matter of policy.[34]

Oil development

Vietnam and Japan reached an agreement early in 1978 on the development of oil in the South China Sea. By 2012 Vietnam had concluded some 60 oil and gas exploration and production contracts with various foreign companies.[35] In 1986, the "White Tiger" oil field in the South China Sea came into operation, producing over 2,000 tons of crude oil per year, followed by the "The Bear" and "Dragon" oil fields.[36] In 2011 Vietnam was the sixth-largest oil producer in the Asia-Pacific region, although the country is a net oil importer. In 2009 petroleum accounted for 14 percent of Vietnamese government income, down from 24 percent in 2004.[37]

China's first independently designed and constructed oil drilling platform in the South China Sea is the Ocean Oil 981 (海洋石油981). The major shareholders are J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (19%), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (14%), T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and affiliates (6%), and BlackRock, Inc. (5%).[38] It began operation on 9 May 2012 in the South China Sea, 320 kilometres (200 mi) southeast of Hong Kong, at a depth of 1,500 m and employing 160 people.[39] On 2 May 2014 the platform was moved near to the Paracel Islands,[40] a move Vietnam stated violated their territorial claims.[41] Chinese officials said it was legal, stating the area lies in waters surrounding the Paracel Islands which China occupies and militarily controls.[42]

Incidents involving fishermen

Prior to the dispute around the sea areas involved, fishermen from involved countries tend to entering on each other's controlled islands and EEZ which lead to conflicts with authorities who controlling the area as they are unaware over the exact borders as well due to depletion of fishing resources in their maritime areas that forcing the need to fishing in neighbouring countries areas.[43][44][45]

Although Indonesia are not part of claimants in the South China Sea dispute, but since Joko Widodo taking up as a President in the country in 2014, the President has impose a new policy in 2015 that if any foreign fishermen caught fishing in Indonesian waters illegally, their vessels would be destroyed as he want to make maritime resources, especially fisheries become a key component of his administration economic policy for Indonesians.[46][47] Since then, many neighbouring countries fishing vessels been blown up by Indonesian authorities. On 21 May 2015, around 41 fishing vessels from China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines being blown up.[48] On 19 March 2016, China Coast Guard prevented its fishermen from being detained by the Indonesian authorities when Chinese fishermen was caught fishing near the waters around Natuna. Leading to a protest by Indonesian authorities and Chinese ambassador were summoned up as China had consider the areas to be "Chinese traditional fishing grounds".[49][50] Further Indonesian campaign against foreign fishermen resulting to 23 fishing boats from Malaysia and Vietnam were blown up on 5 April 2016.[51]

Until late 2016, most fishing vessels that being blown up by Indonesian authorities are mostly Vietnamese fishing vessels.[52][53] Although Indonesian authorities increasing their patrols to detect any foreign fishing vessels, the areas in South China Sea have already become a ground for Indonesian pirates, which frequently attacking Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam vessels as well leading to hijacking such as the MT Orkim Harmony and MT Zafirah hijacking incidents. The continuous war against foreign fishermen by Indonesia has led to protest by Vietnam in late 2016, when a Vietnamese fisherman was dead after being shot by Indonesian authorities.[44][45] Beside that, Filipino pirates of Moro Pirates from the Sulu Sea also reaching South China Sea when a Vietnamese fisherman was killed by Filipino pirates in late 2015.[54]

Non-claimant views

United States

The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the South China Sea.[55] This disagreement is exacerbated by the fact that the US is not a member of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[56] Nevertheless, the US has stood by its manoeuvres, claiming that "peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),"[57] is allowed under the convention. Additionally, a South China Sea free to access is in the US's economic and geopolitical interests.[58] In relation to the dispute, Secretary Clinton voiced her support for fair access by reiterating that freedom of navigation and respect of international law is a matter of national interest to the United States.[59] Her comments were countered by China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as "in effect an attack on China," who warned the United States against making the South China Sea an international issue or multilateral issue.[60]

Clinton testified in support of congressional approval of the Law of the Sea Convention, which would strengthen US ability to support countries that oppose Chinese claims to certain islands in the area.[61] On 29 May 2012, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern over this development, stating that "non-claimant Association of South East Asian Nations countries and countries outside the region have adopted a position of not getting involved into territorial disputes."[62] In July 2012, the United States Senate passed resolution 524, initially sponsored by Senator John Kerry, stating (among other things) the United States' strong support for the 2002 declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea, reaffirms the United States' commitment to assist the nations of Southeast Asia to remain strong and independent, and supports enhanced operations by the United States armed forces in the Western Pacific.[63]

In 2014, the United States responded to China's claims over the fishing grounds of other nations by saying that "China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims."[64] USN CNO Jonathan Greenert then pledged American support to the Philippines in its territorial conflicts with the PRC.[65] The Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue.[66] In 2014 and 2015, the United States continued freedom of navigation operations, including in the South China Sea.[67] Sources closer to the Pentagon have also said that the US administration is planning to deploy some naval assets within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. In response to this announcement, Beijing issued a strict warning and said that she would not allow any country to violate China's territorial waters in the name of "Freedom of Navigation".[68] On 27 October 2015, the US destroyer USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of reclaimed land in the Subi Reef as the first in a series of "Freedom of Navigation Operations".[69] This is the first time since 2012 that the US has directly challenged China's claims of the island's territorial limit.[70] On 8–9 November 2015, two US B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the area of the Spratly Islands and were contacted by Chinese ground controllers but continued their mission undeterred.[71]

The United States itself has not signed UNCLOS, but has accepted all but Part XI as customary international law.[72]


Since early of the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia has repeatedly reiterated its position as a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute,[73] and often positioned itself as a "honest broker".[74] However, parts of China's unilaterally claimed nine-dash line is intersecting with Indonesia's exclusive economic zone near Natuna islands. Although China has acknowledged Indonesia's sovereignty over Natuna islands,[75] China argues that the waters around Natuna islands are Chinese "traditional fishing grounds". Indonesia quickly dismiss China's claim and believes China's nine-dash line claim over parts of the Natuna islands has no legal basis.[76] In November 2015, Indonesia's security chief Luhut Panjaitan said Indonesia could take China before an international court.[77]

Chinese fishing vessels—often escorted by Chinese coast guard ship, has been reported repeatedly breached Indonesian waters near Natuna islands. On 19 March 2016, Indonesian authorities tried to capture a Chinese trawler accused for illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, and arrest the Chinese crew. But they were prevented by a Chinese coast guard boat that reportedly "rammed" the trawler and set it free. Indonesia still has the Chinese crew in custody.[78] On March 21, 2016, minister for fisheries and maritime affairs Susi Pudjiastuti, summoned the Chinese ambassador, Xie Feng, and discussed about this matter.[78] Indonesia insists to prosecute Chinese trawler crew, despite Beijing's demand to release their eight fishermen. Arif Havas Oegroseno, the government official of maritime security said that the "traditional fishing grounds" was not recognised under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This incident prompted security minister Luhut Pandjaitan to deploys more troops and patrol boats, also strengthen the Ranai naval base in the area.[79]

Following the clashes, on 23 June 2016, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Natuna islands on a warship to demonstrate Indonesia's authority. He led a high-level delegation, which includes the armed forces chief and state ministers. Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan said it was meant to send a "clear message" that Indonesia was "very serious in its effort to protect its sovereignty".[80]

Following the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on 12 July 2016, Indonesia called on all parties involved in the territorial dispute to exercise self-restraint and to respect applicable international laws.[81]


In ASEAN, Thailand is neutral and is open on hearing the both sides and will not push to consensus.[82]


Laos has supported China by refusing to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.[83]

East Timor

The gas and oil rich sweeping maritime territory claimed and disputed by Australia against the tiny country of East Timor has been compared to the South China Sea.[84]

Ethnic minorities

Cham people

The former Cham states originated from areas surrounding the South China Sea and were annexed by Vietnam in the 1830s. There is much evidence of the Cham activity in the South China Sea over the last 2,000 years.[85][86][87][88] The quoted sources suggest that Vietnam does not draw upon this evidence to strengthen its historical claims to the area because doing so would expose the Vietnamese government to the claims of ongoing human rights violations and extinction of the language, culture and artifacts of ethnic minorities in Vietnam.[89][90][91]

Moro Conflict

Main article: Moro Conflict

The Moro Conflict[92] is an ongoing insurgency in Mindanao which surfaced in 1969 from political tensions between the Government of the Philippines and Moro Muslim rebel groups.[93][94][95][96][97][98] The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has declared its support for China against the Philippines government in the South China Sea dispute,[99] calling both China and the Moro people as victims of Philippine colonialism, and noting China's history of friendly relation with the Sultanate of Sulu in the region.[100]

Independent analysis

The position of China on its maritime claims based on UNCLOS and history has been ambiguous, particularly with the nine dash line map.[101][102] For example, in its notes verbales in 2011, the first phrase stated that China has undisputed sovereignty over the islands and the adjacent waters, suggesting China is claiming sovereignty over its territorial waters, a position consistent with UNCLOS.[101] However, the second phrase in its notes verbales stated that China enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters along with the seabed and subsoil contained in this region, suggesting that China is claiming sovereignty over all of the maritime space (includes all the geographic features and the waters within the nine dash line).[101] The third phrase indicates support for basing their claims on historical basis as well.[101] Recently in its notes verbales in 2011, China has explicitly stated that it claims the territorial waters and all of the islands in which each island has its own exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.[102] A major problem with this claim is that it fails to distinguish between geographic features considered as "islands" or "rocks" under UNCLOS.[102] The vast majority of international legal experts have concluded that China's claims based on historical claims are invalid.[103] Many ambiguities arise from the notion of historical claims as a basis for claiming sovereignty and is inherently ambiguous.[102][103][104]

Japanese scholar Taoka Shunji criticised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for trying to falsely portray China as a threat to Japan and that it was invading its neighbours like the Philippines. He pointed out that the Spratly islands were not part of the Philippines when the US acquired the Philippines from Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, and the Japanese-ruled Taiwan itself had annexed the Spratly islands in 1938, a move that was never challenged by the US-ruled Philippines, which never asserted that it was their territory. He also pointed out that other countries did not need to do full land reclamation since they already controlled islands and that the reason China engaged in extensive land reclamation is because they needed it to build airfields since China only has control over reefs.[105]

See also



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