What are South China Sea Disputes?

by Ramesh pokhrel
South China Sea

The South China Sea is a marginal sea located in Southeast Asia, bounded by China to the north, Vietnam to the west, the Philippines to the east, and Malaysia and Brunei to the south. It covers an area of approximately 3.5 million square kilometres and is one of the busiest waterways in the world, serving as a major shipping route for goods between East Asia and the rest of the world.

The South China Sea is also an important fishing ground, home to abundant marine resources that provide a source of livelihood for millions of people in the region. Additionally, the sea is believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves, making it an important source of energy for many countries.

The South China Sea is also a source of geopolitical tension and conflict, with several countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, having territorial claims over parts of the sea. These claims have led to disputes over ownership and control of the islands and reefs in the region, and the militarization of some of these features has raised concerns about the balance of power in the region. The disputes over the South China Sea have been ongoing for decades and continue to be a source of tension and conflict among the countries surrounding the sea.

Facts about the South China Sea

  1. The South China Sea is a marginal sea that covers an area of approximately 3.5 million square kilometres.
  2. The sea is bordered by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
  3. The South China Sea is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with over 30% of global shipping passing through its waters.
  4. The sea is home to over 200 small islands, reefs, and rocks, many of which are claimed by multiple countries.
  5. The region is rich in marine biodiversity, with over 3,000 species of fish and 500 species of coral found in its waters.
  6. The South China Sea is also believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves, with estimates ranging from 11 billion to 190 billion barrels of oil and 266 trillion to 2,200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  7. Several countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, have territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea, leading to ongoing disputes and tensions in the region.
  8. In recent years, China has built artificial islands and militarized some of the features it controls in the South China Sea, raising concerns among other countries in the region about China’s increasing military presence and influence.
  9. The South China Sea is also an important fishing ground, with millions of people in the region relying on it for their livelihoods.
  10. The disputes over the South China Sea have been ongoing for decades, with various incidents of maritime and aerial confrontations occurring in the region.

History South China Sea Conflict

The South China Sea conflict has a long and complex history. Here are some key events that have contributed to the current state of the conflict:

  • Historical territorial claims: China has claimed sovereignty over much of the South China Sea for centuries, with historical records showing Chinese navigation and fishing in the area dating back to the Han Dynasty. Other countries in the region also have historical claims to various parts of the sea.
  • Post-World War II developments: After World War II, several countries in the region, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and others, began to assert their territorial claims in the South China Sea. In 1947, China issued a map with a “nine-dash line” that encompassed almost the entire South China Sea, which has been a major point of contention in the conflict.
  • The 1970s and 1980s: During this period, several countries in the region began to occupy and establish military outposts on various islands and reefs in the South China Sea, leading to increased tensions and occasional skirmishes between the different claimants.
  • The 1990s and 2000s: In 1995, China occupied Mischief Reef, a feature claimed by the Philippines, and began to build structures on the reef. In 2002, China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with other claimant countries, agreeing to resolve disputes through peaceful means. However, tensions continued to escalate, and China began to build artificial islands and militarize some of the features it controlled in the South China Sea.
  • Recent developments: In 2012, China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a feature claimed by the Philippines, leading to a major diplomatic row between the two countries. In 2013, China declared an air defence identification zone over much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, further raising tensions in the region. In recent years, the United States has become more involved in the conflict, conducting freedom of navigation operations in the area and supporting other countries in the region in their territorial claims.

South China Sea Disputes

The South China Sea disputes are a complex set of overlapping territorial and maritime disputes involving several countries in the region.

  1. Territorial disputes over islands and reefs: Several countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, have competing claims over various islands and reefs in the South China Sea. China, for example, claims almost the entire South China Sea based on its “nine-dash line” map, while the Philippines claims parts of the sea based on its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
  2. Maritime disputes over rights and resources: The South China Sea is rich in natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and fish, and there are disputes among the different countries in the region over rights to explore and exploit these resources. China, for example, has been accused of blocking other countries’ access to fishing grounds and oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea.
  3. Military and security disputes: The various territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea have led to military and security tensions in the region. China has built artificial islands and military bases in the South China Sea, leading to concerns among other countries in the region about China’s intentions and capabilities.
  4. Legal disputes over maritime boundaries: There are disagreements among the different countries in the region over how maritime boundaries should be drawn and what rights each country has within its exclusive economic zone. This has led to disputes over issues such as fishing rights, resource exploration, and freedom of navigation.

The South China Sea disputes are a complex and multifaceted set of disputes that involve a range of geopolitical, economic, and legal issues. The disputes have significant implications for regional stability and international relations, and efforts to resolve them through diplomatic means have so far been largely unsuccessful.

What happened in the South China Sea?

Several events have occurred in the South China Sea over the years, many of which are related to territorial disputes and geopolitical tensions in the region.

  • Territorial disputes: Several countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, have territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea, leading to disputes over ownership and control of the islands and reefs in the region. These disputes have led to incidents of maritime and aerial confrontations, including the 2012 standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal.
  • Building and militarization of features: In recent years, China has built artificial islands and militarized some of the features it controls in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. This has raised concerns among other countries in the region about China’s increasing military presence and influence in the area.
  • Fishing disputes: Fishing is an important industry in the South China Sea, and disputes over fishing rights have led to confrontations between countries in the region. For example, in 2016, a Chinese fishing vessel was seized by the Indonesian navy for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.
  • Environmental concerns: The South China Sea is home to rich marine biodiversity, but environmental concerns have arisen due to pollution and overfishing in the region. In addition, the construction and militarization of features by China have raised concerns about the impact on the environment and marine ecosystem in the South China Sea.

The situation in the South China Sea remains a complex and ongoing issue, with tensions and disputes continuing to simmer between countries in the region.

Who does the South China Sea belong to?

The ownership of the South China Sea is a complex and contentious issue involving multiple countries. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei all have overlapping territorial claims over various parts of the sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, based on its “nine-dash line” map, which outlines a vast area that encompasses approximately 90% of the sea’s total area. However, this claim is not recognized by other countries in the region, nor by international law.

The other countries with claims in the South China Sea have based their claims on various historical and legal grounds. For example, Vietnam and the Philippines both base their claims on historical evidence that they were the first to discover and settle on certain islands in the region.

The dispute over the ownership of the South China Sea is ongoing and has been the subject of numerous diplomatic and legal efforts to resolve the issue.

What are the main issues in the South China Sea?

The main issues in the South China Sea are territorial disputes, maritime boundary claims, and resource exploitation. The disputes arise from overlapping territorial claims by multiple countries, particularly China and several Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.

China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, as indicated by its “nine-dash line” map, has been a source of tension in the region. Other countries in the region have rejected China’s claims, and there have been incidents of clashes between Chinese vessels and those of other countries in the disputed waters.

Another issue is the exploitation of natural resources, particularly oil and gas reserves, in the South China Sea. Many countries in the region, including China, have been exploring and developing resources in the disputed waters, leading to further tensions and disputes.

The South China Sea is also an important waterway for international trade, and freedom of navigation in the area is another issue of concern. Several countries, particularly the United States, have expressed concerns about China’s efforts to militarize the disputed islands and waters, and have conducted freedom of navigation operations to challenge China’s claims.

The complex territorial disputes, resource exploitation, and strategic concerns have made the South China Sea a source of ongoing tensions and conflicts in the region.

Is the South China Sea the largest in the world?

The South China Sea is not the largest in the world. It is a relatively small sea located in Southeast Asia, surrounded by several countries including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

The largest sea in the world is the Philippine Sea, which is located to the east of the Philippines and covers an area of approximately 5 million square kilometres. Other large seas include the Coral Sea in the South Pacific, the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea in the western Atlantic Ocean.

It is worth noting that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a “sea” versus an “ocean.” The distinction between the two can vary depending on factors such as size, depth, and geographic location.

Why the South China Sea is very important?

The South China Sea is important for several reasons:

  • Trade and Shipping: The South China Sea is a crucial maritime transportation route, accounting for approximately one-third of global shipping. It connects East Asia to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, making it a crucial trade route for many countries. It is also home to some of the world’s busiest ports, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
  • Fisheries: The South China Sea is an important fishing ground, providing a source of livelihood for millions of people in the region.
  • Energy Resources: The South China Sea is believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves, making it an important source of energy for many countries. Exploration and production of these resources have led to disputes among the countries surrounding the sea.
  • Strategic Importance: The South China Sea is a strategic location for military and geopolitical reasons. It is home to several disputed islands and reefs, some of which have been militarized by China, raising concerns about the balance of power in the region.

Given its importance for trade, energy, and security, the South China Sea has become a contentious area of dispute and competition among the countries surrounding it, particularly China and several Southeast Asian nations. The disputes over the ownership and control of the sea have been ongoing for decades and continue to be a source of tension and conflict in the region.

Why do many countries want the South China Sea?

Many countries want to have access to the South China Sea for various reasons:

  1. Trade and Shipping: As I mentioned earlier, the South China Sea is a major trade route, connecting East Asia to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Access to this sea ensures that countries can trade and ship goods efficiently and effectively.
  2. Energy Resources: The South China Sea is believed to have significant oil and gas reserves, making it an important source of energy for many countries. The exploration and production of these resources are critical to meet the growing energy needs of countries.
  3. Fisheries: The South China Sea is home to abundant marine resources, making it a crucial fishing ground for many countries. The fishing industry is an essential source of livelihood for many people in the region.
  4. Strategic Importance: The South China Sea is a strategic location for military and geopolitical reasons. It is a gateway to the Pacific Ocean, and countries with access to this sea can project their military power and influence in the region. The possession of islands and reefs in the South China Sea can also provide a strategic advantage.

For these reasons, many countries, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, have territorial claims and disputes over the South China Sea. These disputes have led to tensions and conflicts among these countries, making the South China Sea a highly contested area.

How many countries claim the South China Sea?

Several countries claim all or part of the South China Sea.

  1. China: China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal.
  2. Vietnam: Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Hoang Sa and Truong SA respectively.
  3. Philippines: Philippines claims the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Kalayaan Island Group, and Scarborough Shoal, which it calls the Panatag Shoal.
  4. Malaysia: Malaysia claims parts of the Spratly Islands, including the Swallow Reef, Layang Layang Reef, and the Amboyna Cay.
  5. Brunei: Brunei claims a part of the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Louisa Reef.

In addition to these five countries, Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, including the same features claimed by China.

These territorial claims have been a source of tension and conflict among these countries for decades, with various incidents of maritime and aerial confrontations occurring in the region.

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