Essay: South China Sea

The South China Sea, abundant with islands and natural resources, is located south of China, east of Vietnam and Cambodia, northwest of the Philippines, and east of the Malay peninsula. The sea not only contains an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and one of the richest marine ecosystems in the planet, but also conducts one-third of international maritime trade. It’s no wonder why the vast body of water is the center of one of the world’s most precarious land disputes. Claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, the South China Sea could quite possibly become the catalyst for World War III. All of the above countries have laid claims on the sea and islands within the sea’s boundaries, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the basis to their allegations. This should usually settle maritime disputes between countries, but China and Taiwan’s claim to the territory is based on the 9-Dash Line. The 9-Dash Line involves many significant islands, such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Over the last 20 years, the feud has only intensified. Each country has militarised itself to a great extent since China first laid claim to the Spratlys and a part of the Paracel Islands in 1946, establishing its presence and interest in the South China Sea. Having China arguably the most powerful contender on its own, the other seven adversaries have found ways to strengthen their military. For example, the Philippines doubled its defense budget in 2011 and pledged to join the United States in military exercises. Each country’s militarisation has escalated tensions between all participants involved in this dispute. Clashes in the contested waters often turn violent. An example of this would be the incident of the Chinese oil rig HD-981. Days after the oil rig was moved into Vietnam’s EEZ, Vietnamese and Chinese ships began to ram into each other. Anti-China protests in mainland Vietnam led to the deaths of two Chinese citizens and the damage of many Taiwanese-owned factories previously thought to be Chinese.

Smaller nations like Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam can reap the economic benefits from the oil and gas resources the South China Sea holds, while larger nations like China can utilise these resources for energy security. It’s no wonder why each country is so protective over the territory; however, an agreement must be reached in order to soothe the tensions in east Asia. Previous treaties and agreements have failed to resolve this conflict or provide a lasting solution, i.e. the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The role of the Security Council will be to draft a resolution that caters to each contesting nation’s needs while trying to ensure the verdict of the South China Sea will have no reason to be challenged in the future.

Definition of Key Terms (Optional)

9-Dash Line

The 9-Dash Line is the boundary line China is using to claim the South China Sea as theirs. This demarcation line has been rejected by all contesting nations due to its vagueness and violation of the UNCLOS. On July 12th, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared that China had no legal basis to use the 9-Dash Line to claim parts of the South China Sea as their own. China rejected and ignored this ruling.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a regional intergovernmental organization, recognised as an official United Nations Observer, consisting of ten members and 2 observers. Members include the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. When the issue of the South China Sea was debated, the ASEAN’s joint statement did not reference the sea by its name and only called for “respect for each nation’s sovereignty and for international law”.

Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES)

The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea is an agreement reached in 2014 by 21 countries- including all of the nations currently contesting over the ownership of the South China Sea. The CUES is a non-legally binding agreement that aims for reducing the chance of conflicts at sea between the nations who have signed it. This agreement has, so far, been honoured seeing as there have not been any conflicts in the South China Sea since the signing.

Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ)

An Economic Exclusive Zone is a concept created during the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). It states that a coastal State may assert jurisdiction over and utilise the marine resources found in the territory within a band of 200 miles from the state’s shore. The state may exercise their sovereign rights within the boundary. China has attempted to finesse this law through building artificial islands in order to have their 200 miles begin at the islands instead of mainland China.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a result of the UNCLOS III, is an international agreement that establishes the rights and responsibilities of nations in regards to the world’s oceans. The final conference held was in 1982.

Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU)

The Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking was a deal to explore the South China Sea between the national oil corporations of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. It was signed in 2005 and expired in 2008. Through the JMSU, valuable gas reserves were discovered at the JMSU site; however, 80% of the JMSU site was in the Philippine’s EEZ. The discovery of the resources has caused conflict between the three nations.

History & Developments

Prior to the twenty-first century

It was only after World War II that any nation would attempt to occupy any part of the South China Sea. In 1946 and 1947, mainland China began to occupy parts of the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Around the same time, Vietnam and France had attempted to take ownership of the islands China had occupied but failed, leading to them settling on Pattle Island, a nearby island in the same area. In 1956, a Filipino businessman declared ownership of a new country in the Spratlys, however, was driven off the island by Chinese and Taiwanese forces. Then, the businessman was forced to convey his rights to the island to the government of the Philippines. Up until the 1970’s, the activity in the area was relatively quiet. Then, it was suggested by the Philippines that there was oil hidden in the waters of the sea, sparking the interest of the claimants still disputing today. In 1974, South Vietnam attempted but failed to take control over the Spratly Islands due to a naval battle that ended in China’s victory. After the battle, China also gained control over the entirety of the Paracel Islands. After a bloody battle with Vietnam in 1988, China regained control over some parts of the Spratlys. In 1982, the UNCLOS was created- however, it doesn’t address maritime issues in Asia, nor is it clear and specific enough to act as a law nations can be held accountable to. In 1995, China built bunkers above a reef during an oil concession in the Philippines, leading to a naval battle and further escalating tensions between both nations. The Philippines seemed to have retaliated in 1997 when they obstructed Chinese boats from entering a certain reef. China then signed a military agreement with the United States in 1998, aiming to shift their previously-coastal defense force to an active blue-water fleet and prevent miscommunication between naval forces. The agreement came under scrutiny when an American aircraft collided with a Chinese interceptor over the South China Sea. The conflict that occurred during the twentieth century can only be described as violent and militaristic, as shown by the various maritime battles between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Figure #1: A map of the South China Sea.

During the twenty-first century

The dispute over the South China Sea seemed to take a turn for the better in 2002 when China joined the ASEAN to sign a code of conduct which would create guidelines for conflict resolutions and seek ways to ease tensions in the area. The agreement failed to be a binding code of conduct but proves that China recognises the possibility of U.S. intervention if tensions should escalate into war. In 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam submitted appeals to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf with the intentions of extending their EEZ’s beyond the standard of 200 miles. China objected the submission and viewed it as an infringement on their sovereignty. In 2011, the Philippines renamed the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea. The United States cemented their stance on the dispute when the then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, referred to the sea as the West Philippine Sea. In 2012, China took control over Scarborough Shoal (a territory previously claimed by the Philippine’s and Taiwan) and impeded the Philippine’s economy through quarantining their imported fruits. In the same year, Vietnam passed a maritime law that affirmed their control over the Spratly and Paracel Islands and required any foreign ships passing through their section of the South China Sea. China responded by announcing the construction of a new city in the Paracels, further deteriorating the relations between both countries. The ASEAN also failed to come up with a decision in regards to resolving the South China Sea, signaling the divide of opinions of east Asian nations concerning the issue at hand. Additionally, in 2012, Japan bought the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, further angering China and causing anti-Japan protests to erupt throughout the nation. The move angered Chinese citizens, significantly impacting the profits of Japanese companies stationed in China and air travel between both countries. In 2013, the Philippines took the dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, despite China’s refusal to participate. The ruling, which arrived in 2016, declared that China had no historic rights over the South China Sea. As of 2017, all contesting nations are still at odds with each other and are still feuding over the South China Sea. What can be seen of the dispute in the twenty-first century is that it is largely strategic, with nations participating in conferences and submitting cases to the UN instead of using military forces to achieve their desired outcome.

Figure #2: A map that shows which islands are claimed by which nations.



Brunei claims the territory of their EEZ in accordance to the UNCLOS and is the only claimant to not currently occupy a maritime feature or have some form of military presence in the Spratly Islands. Although less prominent as a contender, Brunei has firmly objected to any nation infringing upon their EEZ, namely Malaysia and China. Brunei and Malaysia have strengthened their relations after signing an agreement on exploring and exploiting natural gases in 2009. Malaysia also agreed to retreat from a Brunei-claimed feature, Louisa Reef. As Brunei supplies China with their vast hydrocarbon reserves, their relations have been mostly stable; however, as Brunei’s resources are decreasing, the urgency for exploiting the South China Sea’s gas reserves only grows.


In terms of area, China has the largest claim to the South China Sea. They have argued that the sea has been navigated by the Chinese since the Han dynasty, and therefore, China has historical rights to the territory. Chinese pottery and coins have been found on the shores of some islands, suggesting their claims have some substance. The Spratly Islands have been mentioned in Song dynasty poetry as well. Despite China’s long history with the sea and occupation of the islands, their jurisdiction over the South China Sea has not been recognised, mainly due to the lack of evidence to support their claims and also the inconsistency of their occupation of the islands. China’s weak arguments are unlikely to aid them in the fight over the South China Sea, but it’s certain they will continue to fight for ownership of the territory, as shown by the government’s firm rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling.


Indonesia has been an active peacemaker in the past. Recently, they have turned to protecting Indonesian interests and their own EEZ zone instead of attempting to strengthen relations with other nations in the area. This change occurred under the new president, President Jokowi. Jokowi has expressed interest in building Chinese infrastructure in Indonesia, and therefore, has been purposely avoiding provoking China. This unilateral approach, however, leads to the decreased chance of the east Asian nations collaborating together to reduce pressure from China.

The Philippines

The Philippines has been at odds with China ever since the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016. Due to China’s refusal to accept or acknowledge the ruling, the Philippines has found other ways to establish its presence and jurisdiction over their part of the sea. In attempt to strengthen US-Philippines relations, both nations have signed The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The United States now has access to multiple Filipino bases, with one especially close to the South China Sea. In addition to the military agreement with the US, the Philippines is also receiving military aid from Japan, another country China is currently feuding with.


Taiwan has also claimed the South China Sea to be theirs, providing the same evidence as China to backup these claims. Taiwan’s foreign ministry, however, has expressed that the nation believes in peaceful cooperation and joint development at sea.

United States of America

The United States of America is not a contesting nation, however, due to their influence on many of the countries involved in the dispute, can become a key player in either resolving or escalating tensions. The then-US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had expressed the country’s interest in the freedom of navigation and access to Asia’s open waters. Additionally, the US has signed defense treaties with both Japan and the Philippines and will most certainly be involved if a war over the South China Sea was to occur. The US’s interest in Asia’s maritime commons has caused the former to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FNOPs), meant to promote the accessibility of the South China Sea. An unintended consequence of the operations is that it only added to the tensions between nations.


In accordance to the UNCLOS, Vietnam possess jurisdiction over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. In the past and even now, Vietnam has been heavily affected by the activity and conflicts in the South China Sea, especially ones where China has been involved. Vietnam has expressed that they wish to resolve these conflicts peacefully and avoid confrontation at sea.

Previous Attempts to Solve the Issue

ASEAN Code of Conduct

In 2002, the ASEAN and China met together to sign a Declaration on the Code of Parties (DOC) which would require all signing parties to respect the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as well as to solve conflicts without using force. The shortcoming of this DOC was that it wasn’t enforced successfully. The ASEAN had also attempted to create a code of conduct designed specifically for the South China Sea but the lack of unanimity caused it to fail. As of May of 2017, China and the ASEAN have come together again to framework the a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of Philippines vs. The People’s Republic of China)

In 2013, the Philippines submitted the proceedings against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the basis of the Philippines’ grievances against China. The ruling the Philippines was seeking was to declare China’s 9-Dash Line void and that all claims in the South China Sea must comply with the UNCLOS. Vietnam also submitted a statement supporting the Philippines in their case against China. The outcome of this ruling came in favour of the Philippines; the court declared the 9-Dash Line void. Yet, China refused to acknowledge the ruling and claimined that engaging in bilateral negotiations would be the only effective way to discuss the issue.

Possible Solutions

The issue of the South China Sea is so complex and involved that a solution must protect the interests of all countries involved in this dispute. To ensure the stability and peace of the region, all contesting nations must take initiative to demilitarise the maritime features they currently occupy. With demilitarisation, the dispute can then be taken to a strictly political instead of military issue. Additionally, strong communication must be established between all nations, either through a third party such as the ASEAN or through direct talks between leaders of the countries involved. Stronger relations can also be achieved through joint marine explorations and shared resources found in the South China Sea. The end goal is to reduce geopolitical tensions in east Asia but if issue of the South China Sea can be resolved without complications, the entire world may be able to let out a sigh of relief.

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Essay Sauce, South China Sea. Available from:<> [Accessed 10-12-18].