Territorial disputes: South China Sea (Part 1) [Post 116]

On Monday 6th August, I published a poll on this blog series TERRITORIAL DISPUTES asking the readers what territorial dispute we should examine next. My gratitude goes to those who participated.

Today we start exploring another territorial dispute: the South China Sea. As 30th August 2018, the $3.37 trillion total trade was passing through the South China Sea in 2016 and 40 percent of global liquefied natural gas trade transited through the South China Sea in 2017. The South China Sea presents a tremendously complex geopolitical dilemma that includes sovereignty claims made by Vietnam, China, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.


Brief Background account

China’s claims of sovereignty over the sea have antagonized competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. As early as the 1970s, countries began to claim islands and various zones in the South China Sea, such as the Spratly Islands, which possess rich natural resources and fishing areas.

China claims all the islands off the coast. This applies in first place to Taiwan, the “rebel island”, but also to the sur­rounding islands: the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands administered by Japan, the Pescadores and Pratas Islands belonging to Taiwan, the Paracel Islands (Xisha in Chinese) controlled by Beijing but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and finally the Spratly Islands (Nansha in Chinese), the object of recurrent conflicts. To this day, in this vast archipelago of 410 000km², China occupies nine islands. Malaysia occupies three, the Philippines five, Brunei two. Taiwan, for its part, occupies one small islet.

The entire coastline of Vietnam is enveloped by the South China Sea; access to the South China Sea’s resources and shipping routes is paramount to Vietnam’s economic development.

China maintains that, under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence-gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In recent years, satellite imagery has shown China’s increased efforts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating new islands altogether. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty and seven outposts, respectively. China has militarized Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system.


Global Conflict Tracker by Council of Foreign Relations


To the reader, following two of our previous posts of this series about TERRITORIAL DISPUTES:

a)   What are the issues at stakes in this a territorial dispute?

b)  Which remedy could be used to solve this particular territorial dispute?


For reference to these questions see:


NOTE: This post is based on Núñez, Jorge Emilio. 2017. Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.


Jorge Emilio Núñez
Twitter: @London1701

03rd September 2018

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