Territorial disputes in the South China Sea

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Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve both land (island) and maritime disputes among seven sovereign states within the region, namely the:

The disputes include the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin as well as maritime boundaries off the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. There is a further dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands. Additionally, there are disputes among the various island chains of the South China Sea basin, including the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. The interests of different nations include acquiring fishing areas around the two archipelagos, the potential exploitation of suspected crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.

Specific disputes[edit]

  1. Maritime boundary along the Vietnamese coast between Vietnam, China, and Taiwan
  2. Maritime boundary in the waters north of the Natuna Islands between Indonesia, China, and Taiwan [1]
  3. Maritime boundary north of Borneo between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Brunei
  4. Islands in the southern reaches of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands by Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and China
  5. Maritime boundary off the coast of central Philippines and Luzon between The Philippines, China, and Taiwan
  6. Islands in the northern reaches of the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands between Vietnam, China, and Taiwan
  7. Maritime boundary in the Luzon Strait between The Philippines and Taiwan, including islands
  8. The nine-dash area claimed by China which covers most of the South China sea and overlaps EEZ of Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines and Vietnam

Note: Most maritime boundary disputes also involve EEZ disputes under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Background[edit]

Baselines and competing EEZ claims in East and Southeast Asia. Note the amount of overlap in the disputed South China Sea, the Spratlys in particular.

The area is potentially 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.[2] 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.[3] According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)'s profile of the South China Sea region, a U.S. Geological Survey estimate puts the region's discovered and undiscovered oil reserves at 28 billion barrels, as opposed to a Chinese figure of 213 billion barrels.[4] The same EIA report also points to the wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 900 trillion cubic feet (25.5 trillion cubic meters) to 2 quadrillion cubic feet (56.6 trillion cubic meters).

The South China Sea is dubbed by China as the "second Persian Sea."[5] The state-owned China Offshore Exploration Corp. planned to spend 200 billion RMB (US$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.[6]

On March 11, 1976, the first Philippine oil company discovered an oil field off Palawan Island (island within the South China Sea belonging to the Philippines). 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.[7]

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.[8]

In the 1970s however, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory. On June 11, 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.[9]

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 the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. 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[clarification needed] 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.

Current situation[edit]

Maritime claims in the South China Sea

As of 1996, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries asserted claims within the Chinese nine-dotted line[10] The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect on November 16, 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.[citation needed] Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan.[citation needed] 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.[11]

2011 agreement[edit]

On July 20, 2011, the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines which would help resolve the dispute.[12] 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".[12] 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[edit]

On July 22, 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.[13][14] 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."[13]

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 cooperation in the oil sector, and that it had accepted Vietnam's offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea[15] 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."[16][17]

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."[16] The Indo-Vietnamese deal was also denounced by the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times.[15][17]

Retrenchment[edit]

In Spring 2010, Chinese officials reportedly communicated to U.S. 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.[18] but may have backed away from that assertion in 2011.[19][20][21]

In October 2011, China's Global Times newspaper, published by the Communist Party, People's Daily, editorialized 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:[22]

"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."[23]

Oil development[edit]

Vietnam and Japan reached an agreement early in 1978 on the development of oil in the South China Sea. As of 2012, Vietnam had concluded some 60 oil and gas exploration and production contracts with various foreign companies.[24] 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.[25] As of 2011, Vietnam was the sixth-largest oil producer in the Asia-Pacific region although the country is now a net oil importer; in 2009 while petroleum accounted for 14 percent of government income, this was down from 24 percent in 2004.[26]

China's first independently designed and constructed oil drilling platform in the South China Sea, Ocean Oil 981 (海洋石油981), began drilling operations in 2012. The platform is located 320 kilometres (200 mi) southeast of Hong Kong, and employs 160 people.[27]

Comparison of military powers in the region[edit]

Following table is compiled based on data from GlobalFirepower.com which in turn obtains data from sources like CIA.gov. The calculated Power Index (0.00 symbolizes perfect strength) does not take nuclear capability and political/military leadership into account.

Country China Taiwan Malaysia Singapore Indonesia Vietnam Philippines Thailand
Power index[28] 0.2594 0.7564 1.3143 1.4699 0.8008 0.8962 1.3042 0.9287
Total population 1,349,585,838 23,299,716 29,628,392 5,460,302 251,160,124 92,477,857 105,720,644 67,448,120
Available manpower 749,610,775 12,190,243 14,817,517 1,255,902 129,075,188 50,645,430 50,649,196 35,444,716
Fit for service 618,588,627 10,025,261 12,422,580 2,105,973 107,538,660 41,503,949 41,570,732 27,490,939
Reaching military age annually 19,538,534 321,496 519,820 52,466 4,455,159 1,635,084 2,081,388 1,043,204
Active frontline personnel 2,285,000 290,000 110,000 71,600 476,000 412,000 220,000 306,000
Active reserve personnel 2,300,000 1,675,000 296,500 950,000 400,000 5,040,000 430,000 245,000
Tanks 9150 2005 74 215 374 3200 0 740
Armored fighting vehicles 4788 4550 1318 2192 1172 2100 531 1231
Self-propelled guns 1710 482 0 48 91 520 0 26
Towed artillery pieces 6246 1160 20 262 94 2200 270 677
 Rocket projectors (MLRS) 1770 72 0 18 84 1300 0 21
Total aircraft 2788 775 224 244 381 413 145 543
Helicopters 856 276 84 71 149 141 124 237
Total strength 520 102 61 40 197 65 120 81
Aircraft carriers 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Frigates 45 22 4 6 6 7 3 12
Destroyers 24 4 0 0 0 0 0 0
Corvettes 9 0 4 6 26 9 11 5
Submarines 69 4 2 6 2 1 0 0
Coastal craft 353 88 39 12 84 21 38 27
Mine Warfare 119 4 4 4 12 8 0 7
Oil production (bbl/day) 4075000 21680 695000 11000 983000 300500 12000 433300
Oil consumption (bbl/day) 9500000 1100000 560000 1100000 1300000 325000 315000 1000000
Proven oil reserves 25580000000 2380000 4000000000 0 4030000000 4400000000 138500000 453300000
 Labor force 798500000 11340000 12900000 3362000 118100000 52290000 40430000 39410000
 Merchant marine strength 2030 112 315 1599 1340 579 446 363
Major ports and terminals 15 4 5 1 9 6 6 5
Roadway coverage (km) 3860800 41475 98721 3356 437759 180549 213151 180053
Railway coverage (km) 86000 1580 1849 0 5042 2632 995 4071
Serviceable Airports 507 37 114 9 673 45 247 101
 Defense budget ($Million) 126,000 10,725 4,700 9,700 6,900 3,365 3,000 5,390

Timeline of events[edit]

13th Century[edit]

  • 1279 Chinese cultural relics in the Paracel islands dating from the Tang and Song dynasty eras indicate there is some evidence of Chinese habitation on the islands in these periods. [29]

19th Century[edit]

1901–1937[edit]

  • 1902 – China incorporates the Paracel Islands into Guangdong Province
  • 1927 – Japan makes earliest documented claim to the Paracel and Spratley Islands
  • 1928 Republic of China government states that the Paracel Islands are the southernmost limits of its territory
  • 1931 – France makes claim to the Paracel Islands

World War II[edit]

  • 1939 – Japan occupies the islands and takes control of the South China Sea

1946–1959[edit]

  • 1946 – Republic of China sent warships to claim Itu Aba, the largest of the Spratly Islands and renamed it Taiping Island
  • 1952 – Japan renounced any claims of sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in accordance with Article 2 Clause (f) of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, but no beneficiary was designated.[34]
  • 1954 – French claims to the Paracel Islands transferred to Vietnam
  • 1956 – North Vietnam declares Paracel and Spratly Islands are historically Chinese territory.[35]
  • September 14, 1958 – North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong sent Premier Zhou Enlai a formal diplomatic correspondence about the issue.[36]

1970s[edit]

  • 1970 – China occupies Amphitrite Group of the Paracel Islands
  • 1971 – Philippines announces claim to islands adjacent to its territory in the Spratleys, which they named Kalayaan, which was formally incorporated into Palawan Province in 1972
  • 1974 – China ousts South Vietnamese forces from the Crescent Group of the Paracel Islands
  • February 14, 1975 – the newly unified Vietnamese government restated their long standing claims to the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.[37]

1990s[edit]

  • February 1992 – China passes a law declaring the entire South China Sea as its territory, triggering protests from around the region
  • 1997 – Philippines begins to challenge Chinese sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. [38]

2002[edit]

  • ASEAN and China agree to a code of conduct in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [39]

2005[edit]

  • January 8 – Chinese ships fired upon two Vietnamese fishing boats from Thanh Hoa province, killing 9 people and detaining one ship with 8 people on Hainan Island.[40] Chinese Foreign Ministry claim they were pirates that open fire first and obtained confession from the arrested members.[41]

2009[edit]

  • March 2009 – The Pentagon reported that Chinese ships harassed a U.S. surveillance ship. According to the report, five Chinese vessels "shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the U.S. ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters." The crew members aboard the vessels, two of which were within 50 feet, waved Chinese flags and told the U.S. ship to leave the area, the statement said.[42]

2011[edit]

  • February 25 – The Chinese frigate Dongguan fired three shots at Philippine fishing boats in the vicinity of Jackson atoll. The shots were fired after the frigate instructed the fishing boats to leave, and one of those boats experienced trouble removing its anchor.[44][45]
  • May 26 – The clash involved the Vietnamese Binh Minh 02 oil and gas survey ship and three Chinese maritime patrol vessels occurred 120 km (80 miles) off the south-central coast of Vietnam and some 600 km south of China's Hainan island. Vietnam says the Chinese boats deliberately cut the survey ship's cables in Vietnamese waters. China denies the allegation.[46] The event stirred up unprecedented anti-China protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.[47]
  • June 9 – A Norwegian-flagged seismic conducting ship hired by Vietnam Oil & Gas Corporation (PetroVietnam) clashed with another three Chinese fishery patrol vessels within Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone. Vietnam once again claimed its exploration cables were deliberately cut.[48]
"China's systematic action is aimed at turning the undisputed area belonging to Vietnam into an area under dispute in order to materialize China's nine-dotted line claim in the East Sea. This is unacceptable"

—Vietnamese spokeswoman Pham Phuong Nga, following the June 9th incident

  • October 10 – Vietnam and China agree to a new set of principles on settling maritime disputes [39]

2012[edit]

  • April – The Philippine warship Gregorio del Pilar was involved in a standoff with two Chinese surveillance vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both nations.[49] The Philippine navy had been trying to arrest Chinese fishermen who were allegedly taking government-protected marine species from the area, but the surveillance boats prevented them.[50] On April 14, 2012, U.S. and the Philippines held their yearly exercises in Palawan, Philippines.[51] On April 16, 2012, the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged a Philippine archaeological ship to immediately leave the waters of the Scarborough Shoal, which China claims is an "integral part of its territory."[52] On May 7, 2012, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying called a meeting with Alex Chua, Charge D'affaires of the Philippine Embassy in China, to make a serious representation over the current incident at the Scarborough Shoal. China also warned its nationals against travel to the Philippines and raised trade barriers on imported pineapples and bananas.[53][54] On May 16, 2012, a fishing ban in the Scarborough Shoal by the governments of China and the Philippines became effective.[55][56] By mid June 2012, both nations had withdrawn their vessels from the waters around the disputed Shoal due to the arrival of the typhoon season.[57] By July 2012, China had erected a barrier to the entrance of the shoal,[58][59] and that vessels belonging to Beijing's China Marine Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement Command were observed nearby the disputed shoal;[60] as of December 2012, Chinese government ships remain around the shoal and have been turning away Filipino vessels;[61][62] additionally, China has stated it would interdict, and board,[63] any foreign vessel that entered waters it claimed.[64] China later clarified that it would only conduct interdiction, and boarding, vessels within 12 nautical miles for which China has announced baselines.[65]
  • May – Taiwan rejected a pan-Chinese approach of coordinating with the PRC in asserting claims to the South China Sea.[66]
Dongguan aground on the Half Moon Shoal.
  • July – The National Assembly of Vietnam passed a law demarcating Vietnamese sea borders to include the Spratly and Paracel islands.[71][72]
  • July – Citing reports from diplomats on-hand, Reuters wrote that Cambodia "batted away repeated attempts to raise the issue about the disputed waters during the ASEAN Meeting last week as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum."[73]
  • July 22 – The Central Military Commission (China) decided to establish the Sansha garrison.[74] The move was criticized by the Philippines and Vietnam.[75] China responded by calling in a senior U.S. diplomat and reiterating their "absolute sovereignty" over the region.[76]
  • September 5 – Philippine president Aquino promulgated Administrative Order No. 29, naming maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago as the West Philippine Sea. The order declares that the Philippines exercises "sovereign jurisdiction" in its exclusive economic zone, an area declared by Presidential Decree No. 1599 of June 11, 1978 to extend to a distance of two hundred nautical miles beyond and from the baseline from which the territorial sea is measured.[77][78][79] The Philippine Baselines are defined by Republic Act No. 3046, as amended.[80] Official PRC media responded that this was a "fond dream".[81]
  • September 23 – China launched a program to increase the number of UAVs monitoring the Scarborough Shoal, Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and East China Sea, which follows a national marine zoning program approved by the State Council during the previous year as a part of China's 12th five year plan.[82]
  • December – In an interview with the Times of India, Philippines Vice President Binay welcomed the statement made by Indian Navy Admiral Joshi who stated that the Indian Navy is prepared to operate in the South China Sea.[83]

Taiwan[edit]

  • 1954–55 – First Taiwan Strait Crisis
  • 1956 – Taiwan's navy has dispatched the prestige fleet, the Weiyuan fleet and the Ning fleet to patrol the Spratly Islands.Cruise process, in the Pacific Island, South Island, West Tsukishima heavy tree monument, held a flag raising ceremony, and adapted for the "Nansha garrison" reassignment Marines to protect Pacific Island[citation needed]
  • 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis
  • 1975 – the Taiwan authorities claim the only legitimate sovereign of the Spratly. For the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, successively seized the Spratly Islands.[citation needed]
  • January 28, 2000 – The establishment of the Coast Guard Administration to take over the Pacific Island

Vietnam[edit]

  • 1956 to 1971 – South Vietnamese forces upheld their claims of ownership over the The Spratly Islands with occasional ship visits to the waters around the islands.[citation needed]

China[edit]

  • 1974 – After the outbreak of the Paracel Islands naval battle with Vietnam (South Vietnam), the Paracel Islands were placed under the jurisdiction of Hainan.[citation needed]
  • 1988 – Johnson South Reef Skirmish with Vietnam, China took seven Spratly Islands.
  • 1997 – China reaffirmed the U-shaped area in the South China Sea as Chinese territorial waters and Chinese sovereignty over of all reefs within the area.[citation needed]
  • 2012 – Handover of political leadership in China leads to a greater assertiveness in pressing territorial claims.[84] China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) reveals estimate that seizing South China sea could double China's oil and gas reserves.[85]

U.S.-China Relations[edit]

The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the U.S.'s policy of operating military ships and planes in the South China Sea. This disagreement is exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. is not a member of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Nevertheless, the U.S. has stood by its maneuvers, claiming that "peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),"[86] is allowed under the convention. Additionally, a South China Sea free to access is in the U.S.'s economic and geopolitical interests. Although the U.S. is not a party to the dispute, should China achieve exclusive rights to the sea, the U.S. will have to base access to the waterways on the willingness of permission of China, not UNCLOS. Given U.S. desire to maintain its position as a top Asia-Pacific power, succumbing to Chinese pressure is an undesirable position. 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. Her comments were countered by China's Foreign Minister as "in effect an attack on China," and warned the United States against making the South China Sea "an international issue or multilateral issue."

Clinton subsequently testified in support of congressional approval of the Law of the Sea Convention, which would strengthen U.S. ability to support countries that oppose Chinese claims to certain islands in the area. On May 29, 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." [87] 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.[88]

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."[89] USN CNO Jonathan Greenert then pledged American support to the Philippines in its territorial conflicts with the PRC.[90] The Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue.[91]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

References
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