South China Sea Dispute: a 21st Century Battlefield?

722GRUJDCBDB The South China Sea is one of those areas of the world where old territorial disputes are increasing political and diplomatic tensions among the bordering powers. The disputes, that are based not only on political prestige or on territorial claims, are increased by strategic and economic factors. The above has generated in recent years concerns especially for the increasing militarization of the area, united with dangerous signs of a possible confrontation between not only the countries historically involved but also with the United States.

This case study will try to ascertain the roots of these disputes, claims as well as an analysis of the possible scenarios.


South China Sea

The South China Sea is becoming a central stage of the international diplomacy and an area of possible military confrontation between the powers claiming rights on the islands and waters. Old territorial claims, based on national prestige or ancestry links, are now sidelined by additional economic resources as well as the strategic importance that this corner of the Pacific represent in a new geopolitical system.

The reasons that make this area so important and create concerns are:

  1. Increase in China’s interference
  2. China’s grow as a regional power
  3. Neighbouring countries hostility and fear of a possible Chinese hegemony
  4. New US strategy in the Pacific Ocean

The South China Sea is situated in a portion of the Pacific Ocean that stretches from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast, including over 200 small islands, mainly located in the Spratly and Paracel Island chains. Many of these islands are partially submerged and not suitable for a permanent human settling. Their importance, however, is more political and strategically than geographical, as who controls the islands de facto controls the sea and all its resources as well as holding the keys for the access to one of the busiest naval routes in the world.

The South China Sea contains also oil and gas resources that are essential especially to those developing countries that will find in this way an alternative to the dependence from external powers or the West. Especially China, is seen as the major player interested in controlling this area as to ensure stability for its economic growth.

It is then not surprising if all the above has generated along the years the appetite of the regional powers, with six main contenders: People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.


Origin of the claims

The main confrontation is around  the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands (Respectively called Xisha and Nansha by the Chinese; or the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa by the Vietnamese). The Spratly are contended mainly by China, Vietnam and Malaysia, but we can fairly say that all the area is an intricate puzzle of claims by several countries.


During the Second World War, the Spratly Islands were occupied by the Japanese forces driving out France. In 1949, Vietnam (Saigon) received ownership, as per succession from France, over the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys Islands. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty then reinforced this position of the South Vietnamese government, as Japan renounced on any claims over the islands. Nevertheless, this increased Chinese hostility, as they already seized some islands in the Spratly and Paracels before the world war: in 1909, some islands in Xisha (the Paracels); in 1946 Itu Aba (in the Spratlys) and Phu Lan Island (in the Paracels); in the 50’s the People’s Republic of China seized Hoang Sa (Paracels) islands. Vietnam accused Chinese aggression policy and in January 1974, Chinese military units seized islands in the Paracels occupied by South Vietnamese armed forces, and Beijing claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys. After the victory of the North Vietnam over the South, the People’s Army of Vietnam decided in the spring 1975 to re-occupy the Spratly Islands, claiming succession from Saigon government.

Vietnamese claims are based on history and the continental shelf principle. Vietnam claims the entire Spratly Islands and an extensive area of the South China Sea, although these claims are not clearly defined.

Taiwan-Republic of China (ROC)

Taiwan currently holds Itu Aba Island, and is mainly used by fishermen as a rest stop. Itu Aba Island is located at the northwest end of the northern part of the Spratly Archipelago near the Cheng Ho Reefs (Tizard Bank). When the World War II erupted in 1941, Japan took control over the island and the rest of the South China Sea. At the end of the Second World War, according to the “spirit of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation”, China (Kuomintang) claimed sovereignty over The Spratly and Paracel archipelago. This stance was reinforced by the 1952 “Treaty of Peace with Japan“, under which the Spratly and Paracel archipelago should be returned to China. On 08th June 1956, Taiwan sent troops to occupy Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys. Vietnam claims the island as per succession from France, that administered the island between 1938 and 1945.

Taiwanese Navy has guarded the island for over fifty years, and they established a garrison on Itu Aba on a permanent basis, transforming the island in a modern and well-developed centre.

People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Chinese claims on the Spratly and Paracel Islands are based on historical reason, although these are not clearly defined.

One of the historical points that China uses to justify its claims are the naval expeditions to the Spratly Islands by the Han Dynasty in 110 AD and the Ming Dynasty from 1403-1433 AD. To boost its claim China refers often to the constant fishing industry as well as archaeological evidence. The first sovereignty claims can be dated between the end of the 19th and early 20th
century, when China asserted claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands.

In 1947, after the Japanese occupation and the world war, China (Under Kuomintang government) produced the famous “eleven dotted line” doctrine under which all the islands within that line were seen as Chinese sovereignty. When in 1949, the Communist won the mainland and proclaimed the People’s Republic, the doctrine was revised scaling the dotting line from 11 to nine, under the principle of fraternization and internationalism for which their comrades in North Vietnam were granted two islands to build radar installations in their fight against imperialism. This doctrine is still considered by the Communist Party of China as an ulterior reason to legitimate Chinese claims over the entire South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands. China considers the South Sea as internal waters or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), contrasting vehemently with other nation’s claims along their territorial coastline and waters. This initial doctrine has not changed along the years or succession of leadership, from Mao Zedong and Zhou EnLai to Deng Xiaoping, China has reiterated the message that negotiations over its sovereignty are not on the table. Speeches and words have been followed often by action: in 1976, China enforced its claim upon the Paracel Islands by seizing them from Vietnam. China refers since to the Paracel Islands as the Xisha Islands, and includes them as part of its Hainan Island Province.


Philippines claims are around the Kalayaan Islands, as Philippines often refer when talking about some Spratly Islands, and can be traced since the mid 1950’s. The islands are situated in a section of the South China Sea west of the Philippine archipelago. The area is mainly used for the fishing industry and it is claimed that could host a potential source of petroleum deposits.

In 1956, a Philippine Lawyer, Tomas Cloma, visited the islands, claiming them for itself by the name of Kalayaan (Freedomland), and then asking the Philippine government to establish a formal protectorate.

This proclamation encountered the strong hostility from Vietnam that condemned the occupation of its Truong Sa Islands as a military aggression and not legitimate under international law. This position was reinforced in 1968, when Manila sent its troops to consolidate the position by taking advantage from the situation of war in Vietnam.  By 1974, Philippines have already built garrisons in five of the islands. In 1978, President Marcos made formal claims by declaring that fifty-seven of the islands were part of Palawan Province by virtue of their presence on the continental margin of the archipelago.

Along with disputes with the Vietnamese, the Philippines are also engaged in contentious with the PRC over Mischief Reef. China has sent naval vessels into the area and has constructed buildings that Beijing maintains are shacks to serve Chinese fishing boats. Manila accuses the PRC to cover a militarization process and claim that the Philippine Air Force has proof demonstrating that these structures are hosting radar systems for military surveillance.

Philippines claims over its Spratly have clearly defined coordinates, based both upon the proximity principle as well as on the explorations of a Philippine explorer in 1956.

In 1971, the Philippines officially claimed eight islands, that it refers to as the Kalayaan, arguing that: were not part of the Spratly Islands; and as they not have belonged to anybody were open to being claimed.


The Government of Malaysia currently has sovereignty over Layang Layang (Swallow’s Reef) in the Spratly Islands. It was built by the Malaysian government, which collected sand and connected two isolated reefs by filling the channel between them. The Malaysian government opted to build an airstrip, a dive resort and a military installation on this reef since in 1983. Seventy soldiers live on this island and the dive resort is open to any visiting scuba divers. Claims are based upon the continental shelf principle, and have clearly defined coordinates.


Does not claim any of the islands, but claims part of the South China Seas nearest to it as part of its continental shelf. In 1984, Brunei declared an EEZ that includes Louisa Reef.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) coastal states have the right to establish sovereignty over adjacent waters out to a maximum of 12 nautical miles from the nation’s coastline, including the coastline of offshore islands. These enclosed waters are known as the coastal state’s territorial sea.

However, In June 1998, the PRC passed the “Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act”, establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical mile limits from its coastal baseline, and claimed the right to enforce laws in the EEZ, including security laws and regulations. Based on the act, the PRC does not recognize the airspace above its EEZ as international airspace. China consider all maritime data collection activities, including military intelligence and hydrographic, as falling within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions for marine scientific research and therefore requiring Chinese authority consent before they could be carried out in the EEZ.

The US has protested this sovereignty claim as a violation of international law and has conducted a program to discredit Chinese claim. The US retains these claims excessive and violating the freedom of international passages. This is often followed by some gesture of force, where US Navy and Air Force sail or fly on purpose within the Chinese EEZ without consent to reinforce their right and determination to enforce the international law.

With all the above it is not surprising then that military skirmishes have occurred several times in the past three decades. The most serious occurred in 1976, when China invaded and captured the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, and in 1988, when Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed at Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, with the sinking of several Vietnamese boats and the killing of over 70 sailors. Other incidents involved China and Philippines in 1995, when Philippines military intervened to evict the Chinese from Mischief Reef; Taiwan military fired on Vietnamese ships in 1995; China and Philippines navies clashed again in 1996; Vietnam Navy fired on Philippines fishing boats; in 2005 Chinese ships fired upon two Vietnamese fishing boats from Thanh Hoa Province, killing 9 people and detaining one ship.

The current situation

The recent years have seen increasing tensions especially between the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Philippines, with the US at the window. The “nine-dotted line” exists only in theory as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries claim the reefs within. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect on 16 November 1994, resulted in even more intense disputes between the countries.

Chinese officials reiterated to the US to not interfere in the South China Sea, as it is seen as a core interest with the same importance of Taiwan and Tibet and for which no negotiation is on the table. In October 2011, the Global Times (published by the PCC, People’s Daily), warned neighbouring countries of possible military consequences following incidents involving Philippines and South Korean Navies detaining Chinese fishing boats in the region.

Nevertheless, Beijing did not close the door to talks with the counterparts, although these negotiations only included aspects such as marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and fighting transnational crime, without touching the hot issue of sovereignty or exploitation of natural resources.

As of 2012, the People’s Republic of China controls only eight of the Spratly Islands and Taiwan is accounting for one. Vietnamese troops have seized twenty-nine of them, the greatest number so far, the Philippines controls eight, Malaysia controls five, and Brunei controls two.

The year has seen also an increasing tension following the April standoff by the Philippine warship Gregorio del Pilar with two Chinese vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both nations. The Philippine Navy had been trying to arrest a group of Chinese fisherman, but the surveillance boats prevented them.

On 14 April 2012, U.S. and the Philippines held their yearly military exercises in Palawan, sending a strong signal to the Chinese authorities. The Philippines said that the United States had pledged to protect the country from attacks in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a day after China issued a warning over a territorial row in the waters. Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he had received the assurances during talks in Washington. Gazmin also said that the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta stressed they were not taking sides in the dispute, but they assured the Philippines that the United States would honour the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty.

In July 2012, the National Assembly of Vietnam passed a law demarcating Vietnamese sea borders to include the Spratly and Paracel islands.

On 22 July 2012, the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic decided to establish the Sansha garrison, a move that was criticized by the Philippines and Vietnam.

Is the risk of a military confrontation real?

A military conflict in the South China is a possibility and its likelihood is increased by the growing tensions between some countries and by external factors. Although all the parties involved reiterated on several occasion to work for a peaceful solution, mixed signals are being sent and lead many to believe that a confrontation is not ruled out.

Of all the parties involved, the main risk for a confrontation includes the following countries: People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Philippines. The reasons of these hostilities are based not only on past clashes but also on present divergent positions and growing militarization of their posts. The other reason that increases the chances of a military confrontation involves the US. Although not directly involved in the dispute, as traditional ally of Philippines and major player in the area, it would be very difficult for the US not to be dragged in it. To this, we must add recent changes in US strategy.


This is the most likely of all conflicts to happen, although its effects may be limited to the area. The disputes between the two countries are not only related to the EEZ claimed by Chinese authorities but also under economic reasons, as it  a row over natural gas deposits, especially in the disputed area of Reed Bank, located eighty nautical miles from Palawa(Philippines). Both countries have adopted in recent times a hard line towards the opponent and on several occasion the two navies has come to contact. Obviously, on a military point of view Philippines would not stand a chance against the powerful Chinese Navy, as well as would not be able to sustain a major attack. However, the conflict may have dangerous extensions because the US cannot be left at the window. The US are a traditional ally of Manila and a major player in the Pacific. A conflict would not be welcomed in the US especially because will put Washington in a very difficulty position: honour Philippines Defence Treaty and intervene or stand aside? The first position will increase the risk of a military exchange with Chinese forces, thus enlarging dangerously the theatre; the other solution, with a disinterested stance, will create resentment in the Philippines. In addition, this could send dangerous signals to the other allies in East Asia and Pacific, creating the idea that the US are abandoning the area as strategic importance, therefore increasing Chinese pressure.


China and Vietnam are also under scrutiny for a possible military confrontation, even though many believe this is the less likely to happen. The relations between the two countries have been strained in the past decades, both for regional issues such the Spratlys and Paracels as well as under ideological positions.

During the 50’s and 60’s the People’s Republic of China assisted North Vietnam in the name of socialist internationalism by giving permission to install radars in two of the spatrly islands. However, after the victory of Hanoi, and subsequent alignment with Moscow and the USSR block, China became increasingly hostile to Vietnam. In the seventies and eighties, at a time when China and US were part of an axis against the USSR and its allies, Vietnam was attacked by China with the loss of Paracels, whilst Vietnam destroyed the Chinese proxy state of the Khmer rouge in Cambodia.

Relations between the countries remained difficult, and although ideological differences have now disappeared after USSR fall, the unexpected change of alliances and relations in East Asia-Pacific are increasing especially Chinese uneasiness. The US, a traditional enemy of Vietnam, are now pursuing a policy to realignment where Hanoi can be seen as a valuable dam against Chinese expansionism. In a possible conflict between China and Vietnam, Hanoi may request help from the US. The latter may intervene due to financial and economic interest in the area. However, as per the Philippines scenario, a military intervention or even a navy presence will increase the chances of military exchange with Chinese forces.

Nevertheless, a conflict is a less likely scenario and in recent times, both China and Vietnam have pledged to work together to resolve their differences and solve issue by peaceful means. Since October 2011, a more relaxed relation has been seen between the countries although there are question marks on the effectiveness of the accord and its ability to stand the test of time.

The US role

The least, but the most dangerous of all the possible confrontations, will see China and US clash. This is obviously something that both Beijing and Washington would like to avoid, even though both know that it may happen by miscalculation, intervention in assistance to an ally or by aggressive actions.

The US are not directly involved in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but they hold several reasons for not being considered out of the picture: economic, diplomatic ties, strategic importance.

The US have important economic ties with several Asian countries such Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and mainly with China. Each year, $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea and U.S. trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total. The United States have all interest in preserving relations with China as an important market and a necessary cooperation to guarantee stability in the area. US economic interests are at stake in all the area, and a conflict is seen as dangerous to stability and could affect its economy especially in the recent dangerous crisis. A conflict, were the US will be opposed to China or even where they actively support an ally, can create a reprisal by the Chinese through blocking the trade or affecting US market. We cannot forget that China is one of the huge creditors of the US debt and a major market for goods as well as importing several products.

The US are also likely to be dragged into the disputes by diplomatic ties being a traditional ally to Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. All the above countries are wary of Chinese growing military capability, and consider the US obliged to intervene if Beijing will attack one of them. Like in the case of the Philippines, the US cannot afford to lose the support and diplomatic weight of these countries as this would undermine their position in area that is already theatre of several issues, Taiwan and North Korea to mention some. For these reasons the US whilst on one side are strengthening their military assistance and support to traditional allies such Philippines and South Korea, on the other are also conducting of policy similar to that applied to the Bolshevik regime in 1917. The US, by including Vietnam in the pot of the friendly countries, are  building a strong circle that is closing china, a sort of “sanitary belt”: Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Vietnam, will close the South Pacific, whilst recent new relations with India has clearly angered China. This clamorous change of policy, see the US abandoning the pro Chinese Pakistan, and traditional ally, for a country usually supported in the by the Soviet Union first and Russia after against China. Especially this Indian connection will offer the US a huge deterrent to Chinese aggressivity as India itself has nuclear capability, and has a navy becoming more powerful.

The third reason for the US is related to strategic factors. They consider the Pacific as the new area of tension in the coming years, mainly due to the rapid transformation of China from regional power in possible superpower. The Pacific, that had enormous importance during the Second World War, has been relegated to a second stage during the cold war mainly because the US Navy had an undisputed supremacy over the world seas such Britain enjoyed in the 19th century. Even the Soviet navy, although powerful was limited in its capability and mainly located in area such Vladivostok, the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. During the cold war, the USSR tried to regain balance by building a nuclear superiority, a stronger army and a missile defence to compensate US supremacy on air and sea. This also led the US to maintain the navy at high levels but without giving a supremacy role, due to absence of threats.

The above strategy is now obsolete and China is seen as the “new Japan of WWII”: a powerful country with a growing navy that in prospect could undermine US supremacy. The risk is not only loosing strategic and military supremacy but also lose economic control and being than dragged in conflicts in the area.

If the US on one side maintains their neutrality and announces to work for a peaceful resolution by all the countries involved, on the other the new strategy that put emphasis on the Pacific, with major reshuffle of armed personnel, is a clear signal that Washington considers the area its 21st century centre of operations such has been Europe in the 20th century.

Obviously, a conflict with China is not what Washington hopes for but they do not renounce to their position in rejecting China’s EEZ policy. The United States maintains that nothing in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) negates the right of military forces of all nations to conduct military activities in EEZs without coastal state notice or consent. China insists that reconnaissance activities undertaken without prior notification and without permission of the coastal state violates Chinese domestic law and international law. US vessels and planes routinely

Navigate in the EEZ and China has intercepted several of them increasing therefore the risk of accidents: in April 2001 a collision of a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet near Hainan Island; in 2009 the USNS Impeccable and the USNS Victorious were intercepted by Chinese vessels.

Both countries have also sent strong messages to the counterparts: China declared the South Sea a vital and primary strategic area such Tibet and Taiwan and not negotiable; China has deployed new vessels and continues in its efforts to built new carriers and nuclear submarines. State media area often sending ultimatums and warnings, increasing nationalistic rhetoric. Similar situations can however be seen also in Vietnam and the Philippines. The US, on their side, have increased military joint operations with Philippines and South Korea, or started cooperation with India as well opening to more close economic ties with Vietnam, and at last the new Pacific Ocean strategy.

How can China and US ensure that the above disputes will not create a new cold war or a dangerous conflict between them?

China has also at stake huge economic and financial ties not only with the US, but also with the same countries is opposing in the South Sea. A conflict, although Chinese authority justify by nationalistic and military supremacy, will destroy economic relations and could isolate China affecting its market and growth. China, as the US, at the same time cannot stay idle in order to avoid giving mixed signals in the area thus encouraging action by more active countries such Taiwan, Philippines or even Vietnam.

China and US paradoxically have therefore the same aims and options to defuse the situation:

  1. Cooperation on strategic level: open a preferred channel of communication such the USSR-US had in the past. Although this will not avoid tensions, it will ensure communication between the parties therefore limiting the risk of miscalculating actions, and opening to major cooperation at least in other sectors such maritime law, piracy, economic trade, counter terrorism and security.
  2. The US should ratify the UNCLOS and work more closely with the countries involved to control their actions and avoid aggressions, whilst China should open to free trade in EEZ and abandon its militarisation.
  3. US could defuse Chinese aggressivity by increasing the military capability of the other parties. However, this could be counter productive if these countries are at the same time left free to abuse this assistance by pursuing nationalistic adventures. Boosting navies and defences systems, or sending the navy can send a strong signal to Beijing in not attempting any military action.

China on this side appears isolated ad cannot count on major allies to counter the others, but can benefit by diplomatic support from Russia as well as using its wild card: North Korea. China can also increase pressure on the US by assisting hostile countries in other areas where American interest are likely to be undermined: Iran, Pakistan or blocking US interest interest in economic stage or at the UN to mention some.

Obviously, the very and hopeful last solution would be that the US would use their weight and indirect interest to ensure a peaceful and negotiated resolution of the sovereignty disputes in the area.

The United States could push for submission of territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for settlement, or encourage an outside organization or mediator to intervene in resolving the dispute. However, these solutions can be undermined by Chinese opposition to foreign institutions intervening in what Beijing considers internal matter, a view shared for example by Russia and that can be blocked easily at the UN.

The final solution could be a negotiation with shared sovereignty or a Chinese one with an open sea policy for the others. The success of the above, that had already proposals in the past, could only succeed if not only China and US, but also all other major countries involved will put aside their nationalistic rhetoric and interest to work for a honest resolution of the issue. How likely is this to happen depends from the actions in the next few years but everything suggest we will assist to a long, tiring and exhausting dispute with small incidents and the risk of a major confrontation pending above us all.


6 thoughts on “South China Sea Dispute: a 21st Century Battlefield?

  1. I discovered your weblog web site on google and check a few of your early posts. Proceed to maintain up the superb operate. I just extra up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Searching for forward to reading more from you later on!…
    I am often to running a blog and i really admire your content. The article has actually peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your website and preserve checking for brand new information.


  2. certainly like your website but you need to take a look
    at the spelling on several of your posts. Many of them are
    rife with spelling problems and I to find it very bothersome
    to tell the truth then again I will surely come again again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s