South China Sea - Territorial Conflicts And Disputes

Two views of the geopolitical map of the South China Sea.
Two views of the geopolitical map of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean partially enclosed by islands, archipelagos, and peninsulas from the open ocean. Its trail begins from the Karimata Strait, which connects the South China Sea to the Java Sea, and Malacca Strait stretching from Malay Peninsular to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. It flows all the way to the Taiwan Strait which separates the land of Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China. The Sea is located to the South of China, West of Philippines, North of the Bangka-Belitung Islands and Borneo, and East of Vietnam and Cambodia. Nine major rivers flow into the sea. Namely, these include the Min, Mekong, Pearl, Red, Pampanga, Pahang, Pasig, and Jiulong Rivers. Several natural resources are found in the sea, for instance, crude oil, and natural gas. It is an important ecosystem with diverse marine life despite the depletion of fish due to excessive fishing.

5. Historical Background of the Disputes -

In the early parts of the 20th Century, the islands within the sea had not been occupied, but by the end of the Second World War in 1946, China started to establish temporary settlements in the Woody Islands. The following year saw French and Vietnamese attempt to occupy the same Island but instead settled on a nearby Pattle Island. During the time, the sea had not grown popular and there was no rush to claim it. However, between 1955 and 1956, accelerating interest grew among the neighboring nations. China and Taiwan were the first to establish permanent settlements on the major Islands in the Sea. The rush to occupy the Islands cooled off until the early 1970s when oil was suspected to be below the sea. The Philippines became the first country to occupy this oil-rich area for oil exploration, but China staged an invasion to occupy other islands.They complained of the Philippines invasion which later led to the halting of the exploration. Disputes on both the Island and maritime claims arose because most of the World’s trade passes through this particular sea. The sovereign states who are interested in controlling the sea want the rights to fishing areas, exploration, mining, and exploitation of crude oil and natural gas.

4. Multiple Countries, Disputes, and Incentives -

The countries of China, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam all desire to have control over different parts of the South China Sea and its maritime routes, and therefore disputes involving maritime boundaries and the possession of islands therein have arisen. The first notable dispute was the nine-dash line area which was claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and was later claimed by the People’s Republic of China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Dialogues among these nations have been conducted by Singapore as it played a neutral role. The second dispute was between People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam and the contention being the maritime boundary along the Vietnamese coast. Another Dispute arose between Brunei, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam on the maritime border, North of Borneo. Some islands in the sea, such as the Spratly Islands, have become other centerpieces of conflicts between Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The fifth dispute arose between Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam on Maritime Boundary, North of Natuna Islands. On top of that, the Maritime boundary, off the coast of Palawan and Luzon was the center of the disagreements between Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam. Another dispute between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines arose on the Maritime Boundary, Land territory and the Islands of Sabah. The last dispute arose between Singapore and Malaysia on Maritime Boundary and Islands in the Pedra Branca, located in the eastern Singapore, but was resolved amicably between the two countries.

3. Petroleum Reserves, Trade and Commerce, and Strategic Military Presence -

Research conducted in the South China Sea has revealed the presence of over 7.7 billion barrels of known oil reserves and, further fueling the territorial disputes, the entire sea has been estimated to contain up to 28 billion barrels of oil cumulatively. Natural gas, another important resource have been expected to cover a volume of up to 266 trillion cubic feet under the sea. Through fishing and exploitation of the natural resources present in the sea, international trade done and passing through the region can add up to 5 trillion US dollars, this makes it an important region for both trade and commerce. The sea is the second most used shipping lane by the vessels in the world for trading. It has been approximated that more than 10 million barrels of crude oil get shipped through the Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait. The People’s Republic of China has expanded the military activities in the South China Sea by creating islets from the reefs. These islets have been used for military purposes, such as the maneuvering of armed missiles and aircraft used for conducting drills in the region. In response to military activities done by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, India, Philippines, and Vietnam have joined the United States in conducting patrols as well.

2. Notable Maneuvers to Expand Territory -

The contentions over the rights to exploit the oil and natural gas found in the South China Sea have led to the growth of the military presence of China in the region. China has sought to modernize its military, particularly its naval capabilities. This move was to enable them to reinforce the jurisdiction and sovereignty over the sea. Due to the rising of various contingencies among the nations with interest in the sea, China’s move was to ensure that in time of conflict, the United States’ military forces will be at risk and their control will not be overthrown.

1. Current Situation -

Due to the disputes that have arisen over the years, the Philippines launched an arbitration case against the People’s Republic of China in January of 2013. The arbitration proceedings began an investigation on claims that they had historically exercised powers over the Nine-dash line. On July 12th, 2016, arbitrators arrived at a conclusion that there was no substantial evidence over China’s claims. The ruling faced rejections from both Taiwan and China with claims that it was not based on reliable facts and evidence. The United States, on the other hand, has also increased its military presence in the surrounding areas, an act to reassure its partners on their commitment to ensuring their security against the Chinese forces.


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