What is disputed?
The South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnam) is a semi-enclosed sea in the Pacific Ocean, and covers over 3.5 million square kilometres.
Seven states make claims to part or all of the South China: China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. China makes the biggest claim: Beijing sees 80 per cent of the region as historically belong to it. The dispute has led to numerous navel clashes over the past 50 years and plenty of diplomatic tension.
While ownership of the sea itself is disputed, there are also territorial disputes in the region, the two most important of which revolve around the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands, which lie between Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Malaysia and Brunei. There are no native islanders, although some 45 islands are occupied by military forces from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Spratlys are claimed in full by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei (who claim a fishing zone around Louisa Reef). Various islands within the Spratlys are currently administered by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Paracel Islands are a much smaller grouping of islands, made up of some 30 islets and reefs. The archipelago is a similar distance from the coastlines of Vietnam and China (through its southern-most island of Hainan). Taiwan, Vietnam and China all claim the islands, although China has administered them since 1974.
There is a third small archipelago called the Pratas Islands (Dongsha in Chinese), comprised of three islands some 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong. It is governed by Taiwan, but claimed by China.
Also disputed is the Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha Islands in Chinese), which is a sunken atoll east of the Paracel Islands. It is claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines.
Finally there is also the Scarborough Shoal or Reef, which is located between the Macclesfield Bank and the Philippines. It is claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Both the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal are rich fishing grounds, which has led to conflict between fishermen of differing nations.
Why is it disputed?
The South China Sea is the second busiest shipping route in the world (after the Mediterranean) and the economies of the Asia-Pacific region depend on the daily journeys of up to 200 large-tonnage ships that come through the waters.
It also contains vast hydrocarbon reserves: it has 7.7 billion barrels of proven oil, with an estimated 28 billion barrels in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 266 trillion cubic feet.
The area is also significant in terms of fish stocks and marine biodiversity.
What is the history of the dispute?
What is at issue in the South China Sea is a conflict between what some countries see as historically belonging to them, or at least lying within their sphere of influence, and other countries applying modern international maritime law.
In 1982, the UN adopted its Convention on the Law of the Sea which accepted a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). If no country is assumed to own the disputed islands, most of the Spratlys would fall into the Philippines and Malaysia’s EEZ, whereas the Paracels lie in Vietnamese and Chinese waters.
Vietnam, Taiwan and China, however, claim the disputed islands as their own based on ‘historic rights’ which would then give them the right to claim the waters around the islands.
The idea that any country can claim the region based on ‘historic rights’ is hard to justify, given that the islands were viewed as little more than uninhabitable hazards to fishermen until the twentieth century. Both Vietnam and China, however claim to have archival proof of their interest in the islands dating back to the seventeenth century for Vietnam, and the fifteenth century for China (for the Paracels only).
Interest in the two archipelagos heated up in the 1930s when China released official maps which showed the whole region as Chinese territory, despite the fact that France, then ruler of Indochina, actually governed both archipelagos. China claimed that its southernmost maritime boundary was 4o north latitude, thus extending all the way south to include the James Shoal, which lies just north of Malaysia.
China took over some of the Spratlys in 1946, upon Japan’s retreat, although when the French returned to the region after the Second World War, French troops replaced the Chinese.
Taiwan’s claims to the area mirror those of the Chinese governments and are rooted in the Kuomintang’s rule of China until 1949 and their continued claim as the legitimate rulers of Greater China.
China released its famous ‘U-shaped’ map in 1947, which outlined its claims to the region. It started as an 11-dotted line map, but was amended to a nine-dotted line in 1953, omitting claims over some of the Gulf Of Tonkin, which has since seen a maritime boundary agreed between China and Vietnam.
At the 1951 San Francisco Conference, set up to end the war between Japan and the Allied Powers, Japan renounced all claims to the islands. A proposal to return both archipelagos to China was put forward, but was rejected. At the conference, Vietnam asserted what it saw as its sovereignty over the region. There were no objections to this assertion, but China was not represented at the conference, otherwise it would likely have had something to say.
When the French left Vietnam in 1954 and the Geneva Agreement separated Vietnam into the North and the South administrations, no mention was made of the Spratlys and Paracels. It was assumed that these were also handed to the Vietnamese authorities, though legally speaking the French still hold claim to the archipelagos as they have never formally rescinded their claim or handed them to the Vietnamese.
In 1956 the picture became further unclear as a retired Filipino admiral took possession of four fifths of the Spratly archipelago on behalf of the Philippines, viewing the archipelago as ‘terra nullius’ or ‘non regnis’.
Vietnam and China fought for dominance of the Paracels throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however in 1974 China took advantage of internal instability in Vietnam and took full control of the island group.
Vietnam and Taiwan had occupied some of the Spratly islands since the end of WWII, however in 1988, China used its navy to occupy a number of islands Vietnam had previously administered in a conflict that saw the sinking of a number of Vietnamese ships as well as the loss of several Vietnamese sailors.
Tension continued throughout the 1990s, specifically relating to oil exploration in the area. China passed its Law on the Territorial Sea in 1992 which asserted China’s absolute sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratlys. ASEAN members took a united stand on the issue in their ASEAN Declaration on the East Sea in 1992, however ASEAN’s often fragmented approach since has decreased its members’ power against China.
In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), in which all sides agreed to seek peaceful solutions to disputes.
A number of states have submitted what they see as their territory to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. China submitted a note, with a map of the nine-dotted line, in 2009, to which Vietnam immediately protested.
What has happened recently?
Tension has risen over the disputed islands in recent years, as states have looked more closely at the potential gains from confirmed ownership. Last July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US supported freedom of navigation in the area and offered to facilitate multilateral talks on the dispute, an offer which was sharply rebuked by China.
A war of words has started, with scholars and the media from all nations involved publishing articles supporting their own claims. On 23rd March, 2011, China’s official news agency Xinhua published an article called “The Nanhai [South Sea] sea dispute from the perspective of the international law of the sea”, which asserted China’s sovereignty in the sea, and accused Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations of having ‘bent’ the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea against China.
The Vietnam News Agency responded by publishing an article called “The East Sea issue under the light of international law”, which sought to disprove China’s claim, and assert Vietnam’s own, through analysis of Vietnam’s historical role in the sea, and international law regarding the limits of EEZs and Continental Shelves.
Events have transpired in the waters too, and in March, two Chinese patrol boats confronted a Philippino vessel in Reed Bank, near the Spratly Islands. The Philippines sent two aircraft to the area, and filed a protest with the UN.
In May, China was accused of aggression again, when video footage emerged of a Chinese boat appearing to cut the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship, the Binh Minh 02.
The incident prompted anti-China protests in China, and both Vietnam and the Philippines have carried out military exercises near disputed waters in recent months.
China has also been accused of erecting poles and markers, placing a buoy, and leaving building materials on islets and shoals that fall well within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The Phillipines’ President Benigno Aquino said in July that his country will defend what it sees as its territory, and that it will shore up its military capabilities to ensure it is able to do so. There has been talk of the US supporting the Philippines’s military.
The South China Sea has become the crucial talking point on whether China’s rise can be peaceful, and Beijing’s insistence that foreign powers – primarily the US – stay out of the discussion is not winning it any friends. Indeed, it seems to be pointing the other claimants closer to the US, and heightening regional tensions.
What are settlement options?
One aspect of China’s claim that has never been clear is exactly what it is claiming. No co-ordinates for the U-shaped line have ever been given, and what China means by ‘sovereignty’ is not quite clear.
Some say nine-dotted line delineates ownership of islands, rather than a maritime boundary. This means that China claims all islands within the line, and their adjacent waters, but does not mean that China claims ownership of the totality of the water.
Others, however, assume that China is claiming the whole of the sea. Another perspective is that the nine-dotted line designates China’s ‘historic title’. While the legal definition of ‘historic title’ is somewhat unclear, if China’s ‘historic title’ over the islands within the line was accepted, it would mean China could treat the waters around the islands as internal waters or territorial seas.
Taiwan, which claims the South China Sea based on its claim to the whole of China, has specifically claimed the whole of the U-shaped line to be China’s (and therefore Taiwan’s) historical waters.
Other states, however, insist that UNCLOS gives them the right to claim 200 nautical miles, but these will, in certain parts of the sea, lead to overlapping.
It seems plausible that the countries involved will eventually take the issue to a world body, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), International Court of Justice (ICJ), or the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea all as options, but China has consistently rejected any outside interference.
More likely is that negotiations will continue to take place between ASEAN – and the body is trying to increase its regional power – and China, with ASEAN members continuing to be supported by the US.
Joint development zones have worked successfully in other parts of the world, enabling exploitation of hydrocarbons in contested areas, however even working out an arrangement for resource-sharing would be difficult.
The South China Sea is becoming increasingly militarised, and military conflict remains a possibility. All sides would, however, likely want to avoid this: the Southeast Asian states know that China’s military might is unmatched, and from China’s perspective, an outright military conflict would undermine its peaceful rhetoric. The role the US would play in any conflict is unknown, but would be hugely significant.
It appears that no settlement route will actually become possible until the political will to resolve the dispute is there. China’s position in this is absolutely crucial, and they should clarify what their claim to the region actually means.
It seems, however, that in the short and medium term, no resolution is likely.