Territorial disputes in the South China Sea

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Map showing territorial claims in South China Sea
Maritime claims in the South China Sea

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

There are disputes concerning both the Spratly and the Paracel islands, as well as maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin and elsewhere. There is a further dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands.[1] 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.

Shangri-La Dialogue serves as the "Track One" exchange forum on the security issues surrounding Asia-Pacific region including Territorial disputes in the South China Sea.[2] Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is the "Track Two" dialogue on security issues of Asia-Pacific.[3][4]

Specific disputes[edit]

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
Pedra Branca area

The disputes involve both maritime boundaries and islands. 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, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
  2. Maritime boundary along the Vietnamese coast between Brunei, Cambodia, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, 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 Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.[5]
  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.


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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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".[8]

The South China Sea is dubbed by China as the "second Persian Sea."[9] 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.[10]

The Philippines began exploring the areas west of Palawan for oil in 1970. Exploration in the area began in Reed Bank/Tablemount.[11] in 1976, gas was discovered following the drilling of a well.[12] 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.[13] These oil fields supply 15% of annual oil consumption in the Philippines.[citation needed]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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[timeframe?], 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[17] 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.[citation needed][timeframe?] Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan.[citation needed][timeframe?] 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.[18]

2011 agreement[edit]

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.[19] 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".[19] 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 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.[20][21] 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."[20]

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[22] 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."[23][24]

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."[23] The Indo-Vietnamese deal was also denounced by the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times.[22][24]


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.[25] but may have backed away from that assertion in 2011.[26][27][28]

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:[29]

"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."[30]

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.[31]

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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34]

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%).[35] 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.[36] On 2 May 2014, the platform was moved near to the Paracel islands,[37] a move Vietnam stated violated their territorial claims[38] while Chinese officials said was legal[39] as it falls within surrounding waters of the Paracel Islands which China militarily controls.

Non-claimant views[edit]

United States[edit]

The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the South China Sea.[40] 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). 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),"[41] is allowed under the convention. Additionally, a South China Sea free to access is in the US's economic and geopolitical interests.[42] 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.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45] 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."[46] 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.[47]

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."[48] USN CNO Jonathan Greenert then pledged American support to the Philippines in its territorial conflicts with the PRC.[49] The Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue.[50] In 2014 and 2015, the United States continued freedom of navigation operations, including in the South China Sea.[51] Sources closer to Pentagon have also said that the US administration is planning to deploy some naval assets within the 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".[52] On 27 October 2015, a US destroyer USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of the emerging land masses in the Spratly Islands as the first in a series of "Freedom of Navigation Operation".[53] This is the first time since 2012 that the US has directly challenged China's claims of the island's territorial limit.[54] 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.[55]

The United States itself has not signed UNCLOS, but has accepted all but Part XI as customary international law.[56]

Ethnic minorities[edit]

Cham people issue[edit]

Former Cham states were originated in South China Sea and were annexed by Vietnam in 1832;[57] The Vietnamese government fears that using the evidence of Champa's historical connection to the disputed islands in South China Sea would expose the human rights violations and killings of ethnic minorities in Vietnam such as in the 2001 and 2004 uprisings, and lead to the issue of Cham autonomy being brought to attention, since the Vietnamese conquered the Hindu and Muslim Cham people in a war in 1832, and the Vietnamese continue to destroy evidence of Cham culture and artifacts left behind, plundering or building on top of Cham temples, building farms over them, banning Cham religious practices, and omitting references to the destroyed Cham capital of Song Luy in the 1832 invasion in history books and tourist guides. The situation of Cham compared to the ethnic Vietnamese is substandard, lacking water and electricity and living in houses made out of mud.[58]

Moro National Liberation Front[edit]

Various factions of the Muslim Moro people are waging a war for independence against the Philippines. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of Nur Misuari declared its support for China against the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute, 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.[59] The MNLF also denounced America's assistance to the Philippines in their colonization of the Moro people in addition to denouncing the Philippines' claims to the islands disputed with China, and denouncing America for siding with the Philippines in the dispute, noting that in 1988 China "punished" Vietnam for attempting to set up a military presence on the disputed islands, noting that the Moros and China maintained peaceful relations, while on the other hand the Moros had to resist other colonial powers (having to fight the Spanish, fight the Americans, and fight the Japanese, in addition to fighting the Philippines).[60]

While the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace deal with the Philippines, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) did not and renewed armed resistance against Philippine rule in Zamboanga and on September 15, 2013. In response to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF's) fighting against the Philippine army, the New York Times published an article crediting "every" Philippine government for having "struggled" to "bring peace" to the Muslims of Mindanao since 1946 when it became independent and claimed that it is the "belief" of the Muslims that they are being subjected to oppression and exploitation by the Christians that is the "problem" which is causing the conflict. The newspaper also claimed that the conflict stretched back to 1899 when Moro "insurrectionists" were "quelled" by the American army.[61] On January 26, 2014 the New York Times published another article claiming that "every Philippine government" has "struggled to bring peace to Mindanao" and claimed that reports of exploitation and oppression by the Filipino Christians originated from what Muslims "say" and the newspaper also praised President Benigno S. Aquino III's "landmark peace deal" with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).[62] The New York Times labelled Moro fighters as "Muslim-led groups" and as "violent".[63] The New York Times blamed "Islamic extremist groups" for carrying out attacks in the Philippines.[64] The New York Times editorial board endorsed Philippine President Benigno Aquino's planned peace deal and the passage of "Bangsamoro Basic Law", blaming the "Muslim insurgency" for causing trouble to the "largely Catholic country".[65] The New York Times claimed that "Islamic militants" were fighting the Philippine military.[66]

The New York Times claimed the peace deal between the Philippines and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) "seeks to bring prosperity to the restive south and weaken the appeal of the extremist groups.", and linked the winding down of an American military counterterrorism operation to increased American military cooperation with the Philippines against China.[67] The New York Times hailed Mr Aquino's "peace agreement" as an "accomplishment" as it reported on Aquino raising the "alarm" on China in the South China Sea.[68] The New York Times editorial board published an article siding with the Philippines against China in the South China Sea dispute and supporting the Philippines actions against China.[69][70] The New York Times editorial board endorsed aggressive American military action against China in the South China Sea.[71][72]

American and Filipino forces launched a joint operation against the Moros in the Mamasapano clash, in which Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters manage to kill 44 Filipino police commandos and caused massive blow back for the botched raid, putting a decisive halt to American plans for its Asia military "pivot" in the Philippines.[73] Moros have reported that “4 caucasian-looking (American) soldiers” were killed in the Mamasapano clash along with the 44 Filipinos.[74]

The Moro National Liberation Front published an open letter to the United States President Barack Hussein Obama and demanded to know why America is supporting Philippine colonialism against the Moro Muslim people and the Filipino "war of genocide" and atrocities against Moros, reminding Obama that the Moro people have resisted and fought against the atrocities of Filipino, Japanese, American, and Spanish invaders, and reminding Obama of past war crimes also committed by American troops against Moro women and children like the Moro Crater massacre at Bud Dajo.[75]

The Moro National Liberation Front accused the Philippines, Japan, America, and Spain of conspiring against the Moros and recounted their invasions, imperialism, and atrocities against the Moros and demanded that they end the current colonization against the Moro people. The MNLF recounted that the Spanish were greedy colonizers, that the Americans committed massacres of Moro children and women at Mount Bagsak and Bud Dajo, and that the Japanese "exhibited tyranny, cruelty and inhumanity at its lowest level", and "had to suffer their worst defeat and highest death mortality at the hands of the Bangsamoro freedom fighters", demanding an apology from Japan for crimes committed against the Moros.[76]

The Moro National Liberation Front questioned the humanity and morality of the Philippines, Japan, America, and Spain, noting that they have done nothing to end the colonialism and war inflicted upon the Moros and reminded them that they have resisted and fought against Japanese, American, and Spanish atrocities and war crimes while the Filipinos bent over, capitulated and submitted to the invaders. The MNLF brought up the massacre committed by American troops at Bud Dajo against Moro women and children and boasted that compared to the Japanese casualty rate in the Visayas and Luzon, the amount of Japanese imperialists slaughtered by the Moro freedom fighters was greater by the thousands and that there was no capitulation like the "Fall of Bataan" to the Japanese by the Moros while the Luzon Filipinos submitted.[77] The MNLF said that the Japanese, American, and Spanish cruelty has been continued by Filipino rule.[78]

Independent analysis[edit]

Japanese scholar Taoka Shunji criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for trying to falsely portray China as a threat to Japan and that it was invading its neighbors 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.[79]

See also[edit]



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