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Lowy Institute for International Policy | South China Sea: Conflicting Claims and Tensions

Overview The South China Sea is a critical commercial gateway for a significant portion of the world’s merchant shipping, and hence is an important economic and strategic sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. It is also the site of several complex territorial disputes that have been the cause of conflict and tension within the region and throughout the Indo-Pacific.   Geography Geographically, the South China Sea plays a significant role in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. The South China Sea is bordered by China, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Their significant economic growth over the last 20 years, as well as activity in other Asian economies including Japan and South Korea, has contributed to a large portion of the world’s commercial merchant shipping passing through these waters, from which it continues on through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombak Straits. The South China Sea also contains rich fishing grounds and is reported to hold significant reserves of undiscovered oil and gas, which have in part driven many of the territorial disputes that characterise the region. The major island and reef formations in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas Islands, Natuna Islands and the Scarborough Reef.   Territorial Disputes The defining characteristic of the South China Sea and a significant source of tensions in the region are the competing legal claims of territorial sovereignty over its islands. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was concluded in 1982 and came into force in 1994, was meant to establish a series of legal measures and laws on the economic rights of nations based on their territorial waters and continental baselines. This is encompassed in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile area that extends from the baseline of the coastal nation and gives the nation sole natural resource exploitation rights within the zone. While UNCLOS has been signed and ratified by nearly all the coastal countries in the South China Sea, legal and territorial disputes still persist, primarily over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as the Scarborough Shoal. In terms of the Spratlys, more than 60 geographic features have been reportedly occupied by claimants, which consist of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia. The Paracel Islands are the subject of overlapping claims from China, Vietnam and Taiwan. In 1974 South Vietnamese troops were driven from the Paracels by Chinese forces in a battle that resulted in their occupation by China. A further clash between Vietnamese and Chinese forces occurred in 1988, with reports of significant Vietnamese casualties. Another major dispute is over the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan. China makes the largest claim in the South China Sea, and bases it on the ‘nine-dash line’ map that was published by the Chinese Ministry of the Interior in 1947. The map served as the basis for the Declaration on China’s Territorial Sea, which was made by the Chinese Government in 1958 and laid territorial claim to a majority of the islands in the South China Sea. Additionally, in 2009 China submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations Secretary-General, asserting its sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea which was presented with a map of the ‘nine-dash line’. The legality of the nine-dash line map, which China charges is based on historical evidence, is disputed by other South China Sea territorial claimants and under the UNCLOS Treaty. This situation continues in 2014, with China’s new map of mid-2014 showing a controversial ten-dash line encompassing the South China Sea and Taiwan. In May 2014 tensions were brought to a fore, when China began drilling operations with the mobile oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 near the Paracel Islands. The oil rig, owned by the Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), was sent to a location 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast and 17 nautical miles from Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands formation. CNOOC announced that drilling would take place until mid-August 2014 and China’s Maritime Safety Authority announced an exclusion zone around the platform for any vessels unrelated to its operations. The rig was escorted by 40 Chinese maritime vessels as well as Chinese naval assets. The drilling operation was vehemently protested by the Vietnamese Government and a fleet of coast guard and maritime patrol vessels were sent to intercept the rig and its supporting vessels. A stand-off ensued, with multiple collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels, one of which resulted in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat. The drilling operation also sparked riots throughout Vietnam, the worst occurring in industrial parks in the central and south of the country. A number of people were killed, factories were destroyed and over 1000 protesters were arrested by Vietnamese authorities. The riots also resulted in thousands of Chinese citizens being evacuated from Vietnam over the following days. The oil rig dispute has coincided with further tensions between China and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands, which both China and the Philippines have corresponding sovereignty claims. These tensions have been fanned by China conducting ‘island building’ on submerged reefs in the Spratly Island chain and the Philippines launching a legal case with the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea) on its territorial dispute with China over the islands. Both nations have protested the other's actions, with China claiming it will not submit itself to international arbitration over the issues, and the Philippine government calling for a halt to all construction in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery of runway construction on the artificial islands has lead to fears they will be militarised. While tensions in the South China Sea are continuing to evolve, there are several processes and dialogues underway in an effort to build confidence within the region and establish a common code of conduct. In 2002, ASEAN and China issued a joint ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’, which affirmed the signatories' commitment to international law and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Declaration also called for the adoption of a code of conduct for the South China Sea, to be negotiated by the parties subsequently. It is unclear how the possible negotiation of a code of conduct will be affected by international legal action that has been taken by the Philippines against China, or how ASEAN will respond to China’s recent policies in the South China Sea. However, as a basis for a code to be negotiated, confidence between the maritime powers in the South China Sea will first need to be established. In Crisis and Confidence: Major Powers and Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Asia, Lowy Institute researchers argued that this can be done by strengthening the infrastructure of maritime communications and operations through military dialogues, real-time communication channels and formalised ‘rules of the road.’   What the Lowy Institute does The Lowy Institute has a strong record of analysis, commentary and research on issues pertaining to the South China Sea, particularly concerning territorial disputes and maritime security. This research has largely been conducted through both the International Security and East Asia Programs. The Institute is currently undertaking a comprehensive research, outreach and publication project that focuses on unravelling the evolving maritime dynamics of the region and exploring the prospects for creating effective confidence building measures. This two-year project is generously supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Lowy Institute also holds a number of events and debates relating to the dispute in the South China Sea. Earlier this year, Nonresident Fellows Bonnie S. Glaser and Linda Jakobson discussed the intentions behind China's maritime actions. This was followed by a discussion on Chinese foreign policy Glaser and Fairfax's Asia Pacific Editor John Garnaut. The Lowy Institute also conducts polling on Australian attitudes towards countries involved in the dispute. In 2014, Australian sentiment towards China was the warmest since 2006, and when asked who Australia's best friend in Asia is, Australians were split on China and Japan, with a statistically equivalent 31% choosing the former and 28% choosing the latter. However, 48% of Australians also considered it very likely or somewhat likely that China would pose a military threat to Australia in the next twenty years.   View site in full screen