Territorial disputes: South China Sea (Part 20) [Post 135]

South China Sea, natural resources and claiming parties

Natural resources and the South China Sea. Yesterday, we introduced the way in which natural resources may be distributed, and the fact that there are other elements for consideration (for example, exploration and exploitation). How can this work here?

In the case of the South China Sea, the many parties (China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia) could be co-owners of the natural resources located in the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone. Undoubtedly, there are several differences amongst China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia. Therein, some of these differences show how the EGALITARIAN SHARED SOVEREIGNTY could work.

The first difference is given by the fact the islanders possess the total of natural resources at stake (100%). By applying the egalitarian shared sovereignty, each party receives the rights to the same ideal portion (an equal percentage of the ownership of natural resources, minus original ownership of the inhabitants of the islands in question). 

It would be either over simplistic or naïve to imagine China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia be able to explore and exploit to the same level their shares of natural resources (second difference). However, each of them individually have some elements that put them in a better position in relation to the rest, for example local work force, geographical proximity (third difference).

With all these differences in mind, the could explore and exploit natural resources (as they are the party most developed technically and economically to do it), and both the islanders and territories adjacent to areas rich in natural resources could offer the work force for the joint venture and grant privileges in terms of location to Chinese and Taiwanese companies. Thus, less advantaged parties in terms of means for exploration and exploitation could also offer China certain exclusive rights in the sea-zone that overlaps with their jurisdictions.

Continuous assistance from China to other parties might become a permanent feature (it may lead to domination or an unbalanced relationship).  To avoid this, China would have to help the others in developing their means of exploration and exploitation to relatively the same level they have.

At the beginning of the agreement China indeed would be contributing more towards the exploration and exploitation and hence have a larger return. However, these uneven distributions of burdens and benefits amongst the parties would only be in the short term. Natural resources and all that they imply in terms of rights and obligations are part of a wider agreement that has a target: the South China Sea.

Finally, the way in which each party redistributes the benefits of this shared model within each population is entirely a matter of national or local distribution and hence may have various forms. That is to say, the egalitarian shared sovereignty gives the basic structure of the solution; the details are subject to actual rather than hypothetical negotiation. As an example only, the resultant revenues of some or all the joint activities could be destined to a distribution fund.


This post is based on Jorge Emilio Núñez, Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty. International Law and Politics (Routledge 2020).Previous published research monograph about territorial disputes and sovereignty by the author, Jorge Emilio Núñez, Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.


Territorial disputes in Africa [available online from 5th October 2020].

Friday 18th September 2020

Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @DrJorge_World


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