About the South China sea dispute:

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.

  • Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
  • Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights over most of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.
  • China has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its assertion as without basis.


Where is the South China Sea?

  • South China Sea is an arm of western Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia.
  • It is south of China, east & south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines and north of the island of Borneo.
  • It is connected by Taiwan Strait with the East China Sea and by Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea.
  • Bordering states & territories: the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.


Who Claims What?


claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.


hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it.


Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) – a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

Malaysia and Brunei:

They lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys


What is the Spratly Islands dispute about?

  • The ongoing territorial dispute is between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc.
  • Brunei has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
  • The islands may have large reserves of untapped natural resources including oil.

What is the Paracel Islands dispute about?

Located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam.

Beijing says that references to the Paracel Islands as a part of China sovereign territory can be found in 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty.

Vietnam on the other hand, says that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.

With increased tensions accelerated by Colonial powers, China and Vietnam fought over their territorial disputes in January 1974 after which China took over control of the islands.

  1. In retaliation, in 1982, Vietnam said it had extended its administrative powers over these islands.
  2. In 1999, Taiwan jumped into the fray laying its claim over the entire archipelago.
  3. Since 2012, China, Taiwan and Vietnam have attempted to reinforce their claims on the territory by engaging in construction of government administrative buildings, tourism, land reclamation initiatives and by establishing and expanding military presence on the archipelago.




Understanding UNCLOS

  • United Nation Convention on the Laws of the Sea defines the rights, responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, environment, and the management of marine natural resources
  • The following diagram explains the various demarcations as per UNCLOS

Source: wikimedia


  • Territorial waters – Exclusive enforcement jurisdiction for security and all other matters
  • Contiguous Zone – Security jurisdiction for customs, immigration and sanitary measures
  • Exclusive Economic Zone – Limited enforcement jurisdiction, reserved for pollution, marine natural resources, other issues which affect national security. Note that, EEZ can go up to 300nm in case the country can prove that there is an extension of continental shelf
  • High Seas – Beyond EEZ. No jurisdiction of home country


Importance of South China Sea

  • Strategic reasons
    • China currently facing Malaccan Dilemma, dependent for its energy needs on West Asia. The Sea Lanes of Communication from West Asia to China passes through several choke points such as Malaccan Strait, Sunda Strait, Lombok Strait which can be blocked in exigency situations, proving to be a great harm for China
    • Part of China’s aims to project People’s Liberation Army Navy as true blue water navy having extensive domination over Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean
    • Asia Pacific has emerged as the new focal point in the quest for one man upmanship between USA and China. China feels uncomfortable with USA’s Pivot to Asia policy and is working towards its aim of emerging as a counterpoint to USA’s hegemony
  • Economic reasons
    • Control over huge reserves of natural resources – oil (7 billion barrels) and gas (900trillion cubit feet)
    • Rich fishing grounds
    • Major transshipment route – becomes important in an era of economic globalization


Recent Flashpoint

In 2013, Phillipines took China to a UN Tribunal under the auspices of UNCLOS to challenge China’s claims of sovereignty over the portion of South China Sea enclosed by Nine Dash Line. The Permanent Court of Arbitration gave its award rejecting China’s claims and the judgement and its implications need to be understood in greater detail.


The Contention:

Charges by Phillipines on ground of

  • Sovereignty over South China sea and the issue of 9 dash line declared by Kuomintang government of China in 1946
  • Activities of China in the islands and reefs of South China Sea
  • Construction activity by China in the form of reclaiming reefs, constructing airstrips etc

The Ruling:

  • Regarding Sovereignty
    • Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that according to UNCLOS, any jurisdiction over ocean space derives solely from jurisdiction over land i.e. one can have jurisdictions over territorial sea from coast (12 nautical miles), continental shelf (200 nautical miles)
    • Also when countries became a part of UNCLOS, earlier historical claims had to be given up at the time of acceding to UNCLOS. This negates any legal basis of Nine Dash Line
  • Regarding Islands
    • One can not claim any territorial sea or EEZ on the basis of sovereignty over islands which are uninhabited, can’t support human life or which submerges in High Tide
    • This is a rejection of Chinese motivation in South China Sea of reclaiming islands
  • Regarding Construction Activities
    • The judgement served as an indictment on the conduct of China by saying that China violated the spirit of UNCLOS through aggressive posturing in South China Sea


Impact of the judgement:

  1. Even if China categorically rejects the award (which it has), the diplomatic fallout will be huge, particularly for a country which is a permanent member of UNSC and claims to uphold international law (remember China’s intransigence to India’s membership of NSG by bringing in the issue of NPT)
  2. Short Term impact:
    1. Slightly tempered down rhetoric of China wrt countries of ASEAN with which it had disputes over SCS. This is evident in the conciliatory tone of statement by Foreign Minister of China exhorting countries to negotiate and reach a settlement
    2. Aura of invincibility that China had built around itself hit as a result of the judgement.
    3. This might lead to a slightly greater balancing in China’s relationship with Japan and USA
  3. Long Term Impact – China has two options
    1. Go for continued conciliatory approach
    2. Go for aggressive posturing in South China Sea – This includes enhancing naval deployment, declaring Air Defence Identification Zone (like it did over East China Sea), intensify construction activities in the region.
      1. This step, however, will create a dent in the “responsible power” tag that China covets.
      2. China is going to soon host the G20 summit. In case it goes for this approach, it will undermine the diplomatic outreach of China.
  • Moreover China is looking to implement OROB initiative, AIIB etc which will require greater tact in dealing with such a contentious issue
  1. Whether Sanctions can be applied on China:
    1. Unlikely, as China currently is the powerhouse of world economy and a lot of countries, particularly European countries, are joined at the hip with China
  2. Possible escape routes for China:
    1. Bilateral dialogue
    2. Joint management of fishing zones
    3. Faster negotiation with ASEAN countries to come up with a “Code of Conduct for activities in South China Sea” (India at ADMM+ meeting has supported this initiative)
    4. CBMs to avoid intransigent situation in SCS
  3. Impact on relations with other countries such as Japan, Vietnam etc:
    1. These countries have already initiated a process of bolstering themselves against a marauding China by
      1. Enhancing their own military capabilities
      2. Bolstering relations with other stakeholders in the region. Eg India planning to sell Brahmos to Vietnam, Japan – US partnership, Malabar coast naval exercise etc
    2. This limits the effectiveness of aggressive posturing by China
  4. Impact on East China Sea:
    1. USA has adopted an aggressive posturing in the region. US is not a signatory to UNCLOS. Thus it deploys its Asia Pacific fleet within 3 nautical miles from Chinese coasts. These sort of activities make China very jittery
    2. East China Sea is potentially more volatile because of the presence of erratic actors like North Korea
    3. Japan’s “Proactive Pacifism” through an amendment of Article 6 of its Constitution also makes China wary in East China Sea where it is involved in an eqaually bitter dispute with Japan over Senkaku/Diayou Islands
    4. All these factors make East China Sea potentially more volatile
  5. Impact on India China Bilateral Relation
    1. India has emerged as a moral winner in this entire episode. The world sees India as a moral, responsible power as India had resolved its dispute with Bangladesh over territorial waters under the auspices of UNCLOS
    2. It would provide greater leveraging power to India wrt negotiating with China over membership to NSG
    3. However, it is unlikely to cause a paradigm shift in India China relations unless we bolster our own border security arrangements, continue on the path of reforms. These steps would help us in becoming a “Credible Power” and also being seen as one by international community.