The South China Sea dispute: key aspects

14 May

Recently different media have extensively featured the escalating tension between China and the Philippines regarding territorial claims over numerous small islands and waters in the South China Sea. Last week the dispute reached a new level of concern, with hints of economic retaliation and even war. China has suspended tourist travel to Philippines and reinforced inspection on the country’s fruit -Chinais the single biggest buyer of Philippine bananas.

What is the conflict between the two countries?

Since early April,Chinaand the Philippines have been locked in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal where they have stationed non-military vessels. Both claim to own the string of small islands in the South China Sea, about 230 kilometers from the Philippines and more than 1,200 kilometers from China.

The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3.5 million km2. It contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs, and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged. The area’s importance largely results from one-third of the world’s shipping transiting through its waters, and it is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed.

The South China Sea dispute

Several countries have made competing territorial claims over the South China Sea. It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Such disputes have been regarded as Asia’s most potentially dangerous point of conflict. Both China and Taiwan claim almost the entire body as their own, demarcating their claims within what is known as the nine-dotted line, which claims overlap with virtually every other country in the region. Competing claims include:

  • Indonesia, China, and Taiwanover waters NE of the Natuna Islands
  • The Philippines, China, and Taiwanover the Malampaya and Camago gas fields.
  • The Philippines, China, and Taiwanover Scarborough Shoal.
  • Vietnam, China, and Taiwanover waters west of the Spratly Islands. Some or all of the islands themselves are also disputed between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
  • The Paracel Islands are disputed between the PRC/ROC andVietnam.
  • Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam over areas in the Gulf of Thailand.
  • Singapore and Malaysia along the Strait of Johore and the Strait of Singapore.

Who are the main players?

China: claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area stretching hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan. Beijing has said its right to the area come from 2,000 years of history where the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation. In 1947 China issued a map detailing its claims showing the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored byTaiwan, because the island considers itself the Republic of China and has the same territorial claims.

Philippines: claims the Spratly Islands, which are believed to lie above significant oil and gas reserves. The area is also of high strategic value as a vital sea lane for much of the world’s trade.Philippines invokes its geographical proximity to theSpratlyIslands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping. Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) – a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

Vietnam: disputes China’s historical account, saying China never claimed sovereignty over the islands until the 1940s.Vietnam says both island chains are entirely within its territory. It says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it.

TaiwanTaiwan’s “U-shaped line” in the South China Sea overlaps with China’s “9-dotted line,” but Taiwan claims territorial sovereignty over all the islands within this boundary. However, this claim has been questioned by theUS and the other countries with territorial stakes to the area.

Malaysia and Brunei: they also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.

Singapore: claims over Pedra Branca or Pulau Batu Putih including neighboring Middle Rocks by both Singapore and Malaysia were settled in 2008 by the International Court of Justice, awarding Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh to Singapore and Middle Rocks toMalaysia.

United States: the US has been traditionally the dominant power in Asia-Pacific, and it has been strengthening its engagement in the region to keep in check China’s regional ambitions. In July 2010, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became involved in the debate and called for a binding code of conduct, China was not pleased. The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed her suggestion as an attack on China.

Energy resources in South China Sea

The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of Chinaestimated that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). But American scientists have estimated the amount of oil at 28 billion barrels. According to the EIA, the real wealth of the area may well be natural gas reserves. Estimates say the area holds about 900 trillion cubic ft (25 trillion cubic m) – the same as the proven reserves of Qatar.

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For further information:

Q&A: South China Sea dispute

Timeline of Huangyan Island incident

South China Sea Conflict? No Way

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