Territorial Claims on the High Seas: The South China Sea Dispute

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Earlier this month, a Vietnamese fishing vessel was chased and sank by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel. An event like this would be enough to spark conflict in some regions of the world, however, this is one of many flash points in a long running dispute.

The South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping corridors in the world, connecting East Asia with the Indian Ocean and Oceania.

However, when looking at a map of the maritime borders claimed by each country with a shoreline on this region, you might think this would be one of the most volatile ocean routes a ship could traverse.

Half a dozen countries claim territory in the South China Sea, and tensions over where the boundaries should be have been bubbling under the ocean surface for the past few decades.

The Chinese have been the main players in the escalation of this dispute, and looking at their claims on a map, it is relatively easy to understand why the Southeast Asian nations feel aggrieved by China’s actions.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the international framework for establishing what the laws and boundaries are for the seas. To summarise, a country has sovereignty up to 12 nautical miles from its coastline. A country also has sovereign rights to the maritime natural resources up to 200 nautical miles from its coastline. This is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Whilst this would make it pretty clear that China’s claims, and many other claims in the dispute, would be void under international law due to the distance from their shores, the existence of the Spratly Islands and numerous atolls make these claims more contentious than first seen.

The Chinese have said they hold ancient ties to the Spratly Islands, and are therefore the rightful claimants to these territories. This is heavily disputed by involved parties and some external observers.

China’s efforts to further cement their claims in the South China Sea have not gone unnoticed. Hundreds of Chinese vessels have been pumping materials from the ocean floor onto shallow reefs and atolls in a process called land reclamation. China now claims to possess undisputed territorial land in the region as a result of this island building.

It is not only what is on the surface that is in play however, as all interested parties are aware of the untapped natural resources that exist below the waves.

Not only would controlling this portion of the sea provide a vast array of lucrative fisheries, but some estimates of the oil and gas deposits below the bedrock would provide whoever controls these resources with the world’s second largest oil and gas reserves.

This makes China’s land reclamation activities all the more poignant. Applying UNCLOS laws to these islands would give China a strong claim on the rights to these resources, and another key marker in its ‘String of Pearls’, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The other nations claiming sovereignty in the region, whilst all (except Taiwan) being part of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), do not seem to have a unified response against China’s financial and military clout.

Malaysia has long been a silent actor in the dispute. Although their claim encompasses some of the Spratly Islands, clashing with part of the Vietnamese and Filipino claims, they have long been advocates of a Southeast Asian Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), and are unlikely to cause an escalation in tensions.

Brunei’s claim does not include any of the Spratly Islands, but as the smallest nation in the dispute, Brunei’s voice is only a whisper. The much larger states of Malaysia and China both claim the entirety of the Bruneian EEZ claim.

The Vietnamese have been the loudest opponents to China. A policy of voicing aggressive Chinese actions as loud as possible to the international community, coupled with direct engagement with the Chinese, has seen numerous standoffs. Whilst the Vietnamese have shown they are not willing to back down, they do not have the full support needed from the rest of the region to truly challenge China.

Some of the islands claimed by China are within The Philippines EEZ, and this is a major sticking point for the Filipino government in Manila. Even though they have made efforts to thaw relations with China whilst distancing themselves from the USA, Chinese claims in their immediate proximity will always loom over any relationship held between the two countries.

The ASEAN states will have discussed the South China Sea dispute between themselves numerous times, but it appears that there is still no united front against the Chinese. As recent events have shown, the stalemate over the territorial claims on all sides seems to be as rigid as ever.

The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) with Vietnam President Nguyen Phu Trong (R)

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