Quandary in The South China Sea

A Conflict Between Historic Claims and Modern-Day Claims

Quandary in The South China Sea
Quandary in The South China Sea

Sea route is the oldest and a major contributor for trade between different nations. For regular trade purposes in bulk, sea route is the still the best mode of transport. One of the most important water bodies that are used by all major nations of the world is the South China Sea. South China Sea is a part of the Pacific Ocean in South East Asia and one-third of the world’s ships pass through this region. South China Sea also has huge oil and gas reserves and it is a significant area for major fishery activities that is crucial for a huge population of South East Asian countries.


South China Sea has been a disputed region due to the overlapping claims of different nations over the region and its different features like islands, reefs etc. China has been in conflict with other nations like the Philippines, Vietnam etc. as it claims a major chunk of the Sea as its own territory based on historical facts. The region is a major trade route and accounts for one-third of the global trade and due to presence of huge resources of oil and gas in the region it has become an area of contention affecting the neighbouring nations and also having indirect impact on major countries of the world.

In addition to the above, the South China Sea has been a conflict zone. South China Sea is located to the South of China and China claims almost the entire sea as a part of its territory. This claim by China clashes with the claims of some of the South Asian countries. Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam are the countries other than China that border the South China Sea. The exclusive economic zone of these nations extend into the South China Sea and China’s claims of owning the sea gives rise to conflict between these nations.

History of Dispute in the South China Sea

China has been claiming the South China Sea on the basis of historical rights that it backs by use of imperial maps from the time of Ming dynasty. Ming dynasty was the one that united the Chinese empire in about AD 1368. The Chinese claims on territorial borders in the modern day are almost the same as during this period. During the Ming dynasty era, the borders of China were not explicitly marked as almost the whole of East Asia was under the control of China and it was a supreme force in the region. However, when the Europeans reached this region during 1500s, the Chinese system of supremacy over the region began to diminish. The western colonial powers carved out most of the South East Asia and also the oceans and established their rule in these areas. The borders of the South China Sea were explicitly marked by the western powers and China was not powerful enough to oppose them during that phase. During the late 19th century Imperial China started to assert its claims over the South China Sea. However, during 1930s, France seized the islands of Woody (Paracel groups) and Itu Aba (Spratly group) and built some weather stations. Later during the World War II, Japan took over the region and established a base on one of the islands in South China Sea i.e. Itu Aba in the Spratlys. The two Woody and Itu Aba were put under the administration of Taiwan by Japan. The two islands Woody and Itu Aba were surrendered to the Republic of China.

After the defeat of nationalists in China and the French in Indo-China in the subsequent years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took over the Woody and the Republic of China established itself in Itu Aba and Vietnam established itself in the Shanhu Islands (Spratlys). In 1947, China demarcated the South China Sea with the help of dashed lines that covered almost the entire sea. There were 11 dashes as demarcated by China. Subsequently, two years later in 1949, China removed a portion from the demarcated area and erased two dashes that it had marked thereby giving rise to the nine-dash line term which China claimed to be its territory. In 1958, China published the ‘Declaration on China’s Territorial Sea’ which included the islands of Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha (Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and the Macclesfield Bank area) located in the South China Sea as China’s territory. Later, in 1970s, China took over the entire Paracels group. As for the Spratlys, 25 features came under the control of Vietnam, 8 under Philippines, 7 under China, 3 under Malaysia and 1 under Taiwan. These developments included several features other than the islands like the rocks, reefs, low-tide elevations etc.

UNCLOS and South China Sea

In 1982 the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) was signed as per which states could claim up to 12 nautical miles out to the sea as their territorial zone. Besides this, an added 12 nautical miles as a contiguous zone and a total of 200 nautical miles as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which the nations would have the rights to exploit the available resources. Further, 350 nautical miles may be allotted to nations if they show that the concerned part falls under their continental shelf. The convention also outlined that, clearly defined islands would have territorial seas and the EEZ, for rocks they would have a territorial sea but without EEZ and the low tide elevations would have neither territorial seas nor the EEZ. As per UNCLOS, declaration of a nations maritime boundaries would have to be done after consultation with the nations who have coasts adjacent or opposite to it.

In 1982, Philippines joined UNCLOS. After 10 years in 1992, PRC, under the Law on Territorial sea and contiguous zones, again confirmed its sovereignty over the archipelagos and the islands that it had been claiming as its own since 1947. This included the islands ‘Diayou, Penghu, Dongsha (Pratas), Xisha (Paracel), Zhongsha (Maccleisfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal) and the Nansha (Spratly). In 1995, China took over the Mischief Reef that was also a disputed region in the South China Sea. China joined UNCLOS in 1996.

Maritime Claims and Conflict Between China and Other Nations

China’s nine dash line approach for claiming almost the entire South China Sea as its own territory has been a major cause of conflict in the South Asian region. For nations like Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia, the guidelines under the UNCLOS regarding EEZ of these nations have also been a cause of conflict as China has been claiming significant portions of the EEZ of these nations as its own territory based on historical facts. The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia hold overlapping territorial claims over the sea with China claiming almost 80% of the sea as its territory. Vietnam has claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands, the Philippines claims sovereignty over the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal and Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over the southern areas of the sea and certain parts of the Spratly islands. Further, China also claims the waters surrounding the Natuna islands that come under the EEZ of Indonesia as its own even though Indonesia refutes such claims. Taiwan also has claims over certain parts of the South China Sea and is in control of the Penghu and Dongsha Islands. These nations have tried to occupy the islands and even other features like the reefs, low tide elevations etc as per their claims.

Even though China is a signatory of UNLCOS, yet it has stated that the guidelines cannot deny the Chinese their historic rights over the South China Sea. China has been expanding its activities in the South China Sea and hence has resulted in several conflicts with the neighbouring nations. Maritime patrols, deep sea study, activities of Chinese navy in the EEZ of other nations have been reported time and again. In the recent past it has been seen that China and Philippines have been at loggerheads. China took control over the Mischief reef in 1995 which was protested by Philippines, in 1997, Philippines prevented Chinese boat from coming near the Scarborough Shoal and in subsequent years Philippines detained number of Chinese fishermen on charges of illegal fishing. A Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed among the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam in 2012. This declaration was to resolve the issues in South China Sea mutually and in accordance with the international laws and claims of different nations.

The South China Sea issue flared up when in 2009 China submitted the nine-dash line map to the UN and claimed that it had sovereignty over the South China Sea and its adjacent waters. This action of China was in response to the applications by Vietnam and Malaysia for recognition of extended continental shelves under UNCLOS. The Chinese nine dash line map was opposed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Later, in 2011, the Philippines protested the presence of Chinese ships near the Spratly islands which hindered its ship that was searching for oil and gas in its EEZ. Since 2012, China has been aggressively pursuing territorial claims in the South China Sea and in 2012 only China took effective control of Scarborough Shoal after a standoff between Chinese coast guard ships and a Philippine naval vessel. In 2013, the Philippines took the South China Sea issue centring on the Scarborough Shoal to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Even though China did not attend the proceedings as it stated that Philippines had violated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties of 2012, still the Court conducted the proceeding and delivered its verdict in 2016. The Court at Hague ruled that China’s claims under the nine-dash line had no legal basis and were a violation of UNCLOS. China has declared the ruling null and void stating that the court had overstepped its jurisdiction and has also stated that China’s 2006 declaration as per which subject to UNCLOS laws, ‘a state party may declare in writing that it does not subscribe to the jurisdiction of compulsory procedure over the disputes in case of arbitration.’

US-China Conflict in The Region

USA and China have had their conflict in the South China Sea region. USA is a leading world power and has acted as a dominant power in South Asia after the World War II. On the other hand, China is an emerging power in the world and has significantly changes its geopolitical hold and dominance in the region in the past few decades. USA has number of allies in the region. It shares a good relationship with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and the other members of ASEAN. USA has been routinely conducting navigation patrols in the region in order to prevent any bullying by China or any other nation in the region. USA has actively supported its allies like Taiwan and other nations from Chinese navy in a number of occasions. The regular presence of USA in South China Sea has also led to number of confrontations between Chinese ships and naval vessels of the US.

USA has been actively present in the region as it considers that in its absence the activities of China may cause emergence of regional hegemony in this area and such a development and subsequent concentration of power could threaten core interests of the US. Further, US navy has to pass through the South China Sea frequently due to its operations in the Middle East. Also, as the South China Sea is a major trade route in the world, USA would not like to leave it over to the monopoly of China. The Chinese submarine surfacing near a US navy ship during 2006 at the time of a naval exercise and again in 2012, a Chinese submarine sailed close to another US naval ship. Incidences like these have demanded a strong US naval presence in the region in order to counter Chinese activity in the South China Sea.

In case of China, it has been seeking to become a global power starting from becoming a regional power in South East Asia. China has been developing navy ships and aircraft carriers in order to strengthen its hold in the South China Sea and in waters far off from home. Secondly, China wants to take over the South China Sea region as it has huge reserves of resources like oil, gas etc and China wants to have an effective control over the world trade that uses the South China Sea route. The naval exercises of China in the South China Sea region including capture of islands, fire drills, joint exercises etc have been clear portrayal of China’s intention to gain dominance in the region. Also, in 1996 when China signed UNCLOS it had declared that a foreign state has to obtain advance approval for the passage of its warships through its territorial waters. It also insists that foreign military ships need to take permission before operating in its EEZ. Besides establishing its strong hold in the region, this approach of China is due to the constant presence of US navy in the region as China views it as an obstruction to its growth in the waters of the region. These opposing views of USA and China have resulted in different confrontations between the two in the region as both are wary about the intentions of each other and maintain a close vigil on each other’s actions.

India’s stakes in South China Sea

India does not have a direct security threat from the South China Sea condition, but the issues of South China Sea are important for India from various aspects. First, India has been deepening it ties with the South Asian countries and has been on the lookout for a greater cooperative environment for overall development and growth under its policy of Act East. Not only the ASEAN member but also the nations in the Far East Pacific regions are vital for India’s economic development. Second, the significant position of South China Sea in the trade and India’s dependence on the sea route for trade also makes the South China Sea region a matter of concern for it. The South China Sea conflict will have adverse impact on India’s trade and commerce and thereby it is important for India. China’s monopoly in the South China Sea region would have adverse impact on India’s trade. Third, India is in favour of a world with multi polar powers so that mutual cooperation and global development is ensured without imbalanced concentration of power. Also, India strives for peace and harmony in the region. In this backdrop, the increasing aggression of Chinese naval ships, aircrafts, submarines etc in the region, increasing undersea presence of China in littoral South Asia, China’s maritime manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean Region, Chinese naval bases in the Indian Ocean Region etc have become cause of concern for India. A pattern has been seen that China has been utilising its increasing dominance in the South China Sea as a conduit for increasing its reach and dominance in the Indian Ocean. China has considerably expanded its research and mining operations in the Southern Indian Ocean which has come quite close to India’s territorial waters. Presence of Chinese intelligence ships has also increased in the Indian Ocean region. Hence an indirect effect of South China Sea on Indian security can be marked and in such a case, India would favour steps that help to restore the maritime balance in Asia and the nearby regions.


Fourth, considering China’s hegemonic activities and attitude, it would not be in the better interest for India or any other neighbouring nations to allow China a complete free dominance over South China Sea, its resources and the entire range of maritime operations in the South China Sea. Fifth, India’s economic interests have also suffered a setback due to the South China Sea issue. India has been awarded some blocks of South China Sea for oil and gas exploration by Vietnam but due to conflict between Vietnam and China over those areas, Indian companies have been unable to exploit the resources available. Lastly, much like the US, India is also concerned about the rising tensions in the region as it can adversely affect the freedom of navigation and flight movement over the region which is of vital importance for India as well as for the other nations. These reasons make the South China Sea conflict a strategically important matter for India.

Recent Developments in The South China Sea Region

In 2019, Chinese research vessels and warships were found in the water claimed by Philippines as its territory. Also, a spike in the activities of China in the South China Sea region has been marked since the 2016 verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 2019 only in the starting few months, on number of occasions, China’s warships were seen operating in the EEZ of Philippines. Besides Philippines, Vietnam has also reported that Chinese ships have been operating in its EEZ in the name of survey which has resulted in standoff situations between China and Vietnam. Subsequently, a US aircraft carrier sailed through the South China Sea region and the US stated that this show of military might was intended to provide security and stability in the region which would foster diplomatic talks among the nations in conflict.

In the current year when the world has been grappled by the global pandemic situation, China has become increasingly active in the South China Sea region. During February, Chinese fishing boats accompanied by Chinese coast guard vessels had been fishing in the disputed area near the Natuna Sea. During March, second time in less than a year’s time, Chinese maritime vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed islands in the South China Sea leading to fresh sparks in the conflicted region. Further, China has also been conducting military drills and has reportedly deployed large scale military assets in the region. Besides this, China has also been focussing on building research station to gather data on ecology, geology and environment in the area near the Spratly Island. In April, China ordered administrative reorganisation of its South China Sea territories and constituted two new municipal districts in the Paracel and Spratly island groups which used to be managed by local administration under Sansha which is the southernmost city of China’s Hainan province. This has been done in order to establish a better governance and control over the islands. Due to the increase in China’s militia and coast guard vessels in the disputed regions that may lead to confrontations in the area, US has put in place an amphibious assault ship and guided missile warships close to the regions where China’s ships are stationed. Australia has also sent a warship that has joined the US ships in exercises being conducted in the South China Sea.


The South China Sea has been a disputed region since a long period. China has been trying to claim a majority of the South China Sea for its own needs and benefits ignoring the claims of other neighbouring nations like Vietnam, Philippines etc. The increase in Chinese activity in the region has sparked off new tensions in the region and US has been striving to establish a calm atmosphere suitable for diplomatic talks in order to resolve the conflict. South China Sea also is important for India because of its importance in trade and its vast resource base of oil and gas. Further, it is also important for India as it has a link to India’s territorial waters in the Indian Ocean Region and China’s increasing presence in the region has raised security concerns for India. India has maintained a neutral position in the matter till now. However, India will need to adopt a strategic approach to deal with the issue when India’s stand in the matter is called for. This is essential for India’s Act East policy and also for maintaining regional balance in the region and hence is vital for economic and overall growth of India as well as other nations in the region.


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