The South China Sea: A Historical Overview

The sea is dotted with hundreds of small islands, atolls, and reefs, only a few of which are actually inhabitable and all of which lie outside the internationally-recognized 12 nautical miles territorial limit of the squabbling nations.

Geopolitical disputes over the ownership of the South China Sea were a frequent topic of international news in 2012, and indications are that they will continue to be so for some time to come. Here is a brief primer on why this part of the world has become such a diplomatic hotspot.

Where is the South China Sea?

The South China Sea is a broad body of water lying between the coast of the Southeast Asian mainland and the island nations of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It is bordered on the north by Taiwan and the southern coast of China, on the west by Viet Nam, on the south by the Malay Peninsula and Borneo, and on the east by the Philippines.

As shown by this map, China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, which is the source of the sharp disputes it has had with other countries, primarily Viet Nam and the Philippines. The sea is dotted with hundreds of small islands, atolls, and reefs, only a few of which are actually inhabitable and all of which lie outside the internationally-recognized 12 nautical miles territorial limit of the squabbling nations. The claims of the Philippines, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam to parts of the South China Sea are based on geographical proximity, historical claims, and the 200 nautical mile limit to “Exclusive Economic Zones” provided for in the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is not recognized by China.

Do Any of the Countries Have a Legitimate Claim?

Because there is very little physical land that can be occupied in the South China Sea, none of the countries involved has established a clear, indisputable sovereign claim. In 1947, shortly after the Communists came to power in China, the Chinese government published maps purportedly dating back to the 16th century showing the sea as part of Chinese territory and claimed the area had been used by Chinese fishermen and traders for more than 2,000 years. Viet Nam in particular disputed this, producing documents of their own showing the Paracel and Spratly Island groups as part of their territory as early as the 17th century. The claims of the Philippines to the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal, which lies about 150 kilometers west of the Philippines, are based on those areas lying closer to the Philippines than any of the other countries. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei base their claims on the provisions of the UNCLOS accord.

Why is the South China Sea Such “Hot Property”?

The most important reason is natural gas and lots of it. Although the continuing disputes have prevented much exploration in the South China Sea, indications from the few surveys that have been done indicate it may contain reserves of up to 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, which if true would make the area the third- or fourth-largest concentration of gas in the world. In addition, the South China Sea is believed to hold oil reserves of up to 28 billion barrels, according to estimates by the US Energy Information Administration.

The South China Sea is also a strategically important shipping region linking Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Indian Ocean with China, Japan, and the rest of the Pacific Ocean; about a third of the world’s sea traffic is said to cross the South China Sea. The sea is also a rich fishing ground and supports most of the commercial fishing done by the Philippines, Viet Nam, China, and Malaysia.

Key Events in the South China Sea

The most serious clashes have occurred between China and Viet Nam, who have had naval battles over the Paracels and the Spratlys. In 1974, China launched an amphibious assault on the Paracel Islands then occupied by Viet Nam, seizing the island group after a short, violent fight that killed about 70 Vietnamese soldiers. In 1988, a naval engagement between Viet Nam and China in the Spratlys ended with several Vietnamese gunboats being destroyed, with a loss of about 60 sailors.

More recently, an attempt by Philippine Coast Guard forces to arrest Chinese poachers in the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 led to a tense naval standoff that saw both nations send dozens of vessels to the area, and created a diplomatic crisis that has since settled down but has not been resolved. China also angered both Viet Nam and the Philippines in 2012 by redesigning its passports with an illustration of a map showing the South China Sea as part of its territory; as a result, both countries briefly refused to issue visa stamps to Chinese travelers carrying the new, offensive passports.

Other small provocations are frequent occurrences. An unconfirmed report of Chinese interference with Vietnamese oil exploration vessels in 2011 led to massive anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City; the Vietnamese for their part routinely conduct live-fire naval exercises in the South China Sea, drawing protests from the Chinese government. And in 2012, the Philippine government issued a directive renaming the South China Sea to the “West Philippine Sea,” further irritating China.

Will the Disputes Be Ever Resolved?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes all the claimants to the South China Sea except China and Taiwan, has on several occasions attempted to develop a binding “code of conduct” for nations in the South China Sea, with little success. China for its part has consistently resisted moves to “internationalize” the dispute, preferring to negotiate on a bilateral basis with individual countries. Although some discussions have taken place, most recently between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal incident, none of the countries have been willing to relax their claims, suggesting the issue will be a source of tension for some time to come.


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