top of page
Keyboard and Mouse


South China Sea: The Disputed Waters

The south china sea dispute has been one of the most complex yet riveting issues in Asia for many years. It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty of ocean areas, where the fight is over the islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Competing countries like Brunei, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have set their eyes on retaining or acquiring the rights over the extrapolated estimates of fishing stocks, the exploration and potential exploitation of Crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes through which US$3.37 trillion worth of global trade passes annually. Definitely, no country would like to give up such a strategically and economically important natural asset. Therefore, it can be rightly said that whichever country owns the South China Sea will be able to dominate the entire Asian trade and potentially emerge as a superpower. But here’s the catch, who will get the ownership?


Hence, in order to avail the benefits, each of the countries have contested their ownership on historical grounds and each of them being equally convincing. The People’s Republic of China made claims on historical grounds stating that in 100 BCE- 2nd century CE, the Sa-Huynh culture flourished in coastal south china sea whose relics were found on several coasts of south china sea from Phillipines to Taiwan, suggesting that the Chinese were the first to rule over those waters in the past.

The Geneva Accords of 1954, gave South Vietnam control of the Vietnamese territories south of the 17th Parallel, which included the islands in the Paracels and Spratlys. But two years later the North Vietnamese government claimed that the People’s Republic of China is the lawful claimant of the islands.

In 1974, the PRC used military force in the Paracel Islands and took Yagong Island and the Crescent group of reefs from South Vietnam as they wanted to prevent the Paracel islands from falling under the control of North Vietnam who was expected to defeat South Vietnam in the Vietnamese war. In the latter half of 1970s, the Philippines and Malaysia began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory.

In 1988, PRC and Vietnam had a skirmish for the control Johnson Reef because the PRC had started building five observation posts for conducting ocean surveys on the Fiery Cross Reef, but when it started the construction, Vietnam sent their navy there to monitor the situation. The two states clashed near the Johnson Reef, and after the clash, China occupied the Johnson Reef. In 1994, the PRC occupied Mischief Reef, in order to excel in the energy resources race in the Spratlys, where China lacked a presence while the other countries were starting their oil exploration businesses.

The occupation and control of most parts of the Spratly and Paracel islands has not changed significantly since the middle of 1990s. However, balance of power in the Spratlys has greatly shifted since 2013, when the PRC started its island building activities in the region. The significance of the economic benefit for each country is more than the resources it invests in contest for region.


The South China Sea is one of the most important and economically beneficial regions in the contemporary world. The region contains some of the most significant shipping lanes of the world which are indispensable for smooth flow of global trade. The region accounts for a total of one third of global shipping and 40% of China’s total trade. The spectrum of high traffic and the international flow of goods and capital clearly indicates the economic significance of the region. However, the region has more to offer economically and strategically that countries are contesting for.

There is a wide variety of resources that the legitimate sovereign state will have every right to explore and exploit. One such boundless resource is marine life. The region is abundant with fisheries of all sorts and kinds. Researches show that the region holds about one third of the entire global biodiversity. The collection of seafood is the main source of animal protein to the region encompassing South China Sea. The dense population around the region is a thriving market for the produce to which countries can export to.

The major economic takeaway from the region is the natural resource rich seabed which is expected to host a bulk of oil reserves present in East and South East Asia. Though the total estimates vary, the region is thought to contain oil reserves of at least 7.7 billion proven barrels, with some estimates reaching as high as 213 billion barrels. The region is also home to one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves which might be the most sought-after hydrocarbon resource in the South China Sea. Along with oil and gas reserves, the region is laden with rare earth elements which can be used to drive the technological boom the region is witnessing. These economic benefits, if laid hands on can prove to be very useful to countries and help them grow their economic and strategic impact on a global scale.

In order to avail such economic benefits, the geopolitical activities of the rival countries have intensified manifolds. Recently, both the United States as well as Australia have rejected large parts of China’s maritime claims in the waters along with the territorial claims by any state to undersea reefs. The United States, already infuriated by China, is pressuring Australia to be a part of its freedom of navigation exercises in the sea.


Maritime powers such as United Kingdom, United States and Australia regularly carry out freedom of navigation operations also called as FONOPs to challenge the attempts by other coastal states to illegally extend claims on the sea waters.

Presently Australia has firmly denied China’s claim to ‘historic rights’ or ‘maritime rights and interests’ as established in the ‘long course of historical practice’ in the South China Sea.” This declaration from Australia against China is expected to be due to the deteriorating relations between the nations over a number of issues, including an Australian call for a global investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

China claims more than 80 per cent of the waterway based on the Law of the Sea Convention as well as its “nine-dash” line. The nine-dash line extends for 2,000 kilometres from the Chinese borders, including nearly 50% of the sea as against the Law of the Sea Convention, which extends a right to only 200 nautical miles “exclusive economic zone” to exploit the resources. However, where these zones overlap, countries are required to come to a common understanding which is yet to be achieved in the South China Sea.

The United Sates has scrutinised China’s militarisation of the region for long. Trump has recently reversed a policy of not taking sides by explicitly backing the territorial claims of China’s South East Asian neighbours. Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of state, has claimed that some of China’s actions were extremely against the law, condemning Beijing’s “campaign of bullying to control” the area to which China called out on the US for “deliberately distorting facts and international law”.

Vietnam has been mulling legal action to assert its maritime claim over the long fought waters. It has the most acute conflict with China in the South China Sea. Hu Bo, director of South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative in China, said that Vietnam was an exception while most Association of Southeast Asian Nations claimant states avoid taking sides in the US-China tension. Vietnam has a more assertive approach because of the high stakes for oil, gas, fisheries and sovereignty in the resource-rich waters and the long history of disputes with China.

The Philippines has also made multiple claims. It issued proceedings against China under Part XV of the Convention on January 22, 2013. It also requested the halt of the Chinese’s expansive ‘nine-dash line’ by arguing that “such a line is in contravention of the provisions of Convention in the allocation of maritime space, including a territorial sea, continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.The Philippines did not question the sovereignty but sought clarification of the nature of the Spratly Islands. Finally, the Philippines claimed that China was unlawfully occupying the Philippine “Territorial Sea” thereby denying the Philippines Rights to Explore and Exploit living and non-living resources in maritime areas over which the Philippines claims exclusive sovereign rights as well as its rights of navigation in the contested area.

Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands. Even though, Indonesia is not a claimant state, it maintains an exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Islands on the edge of the South China Sea. It has challenged China’s efforts to fish in the region marked by Jakarta’s protests against the presence of a Chinese coastguard vessel escorting Chinese fishing boats in the area.

Perhaps only a final verdict on this matter by the UN Convention will help establish which country owns which part, but till then we can expect high voltage politics among the claimant countries battling for the ownership of the South China Sea.

bottom of page