The South China Sea dispute is ostensibly over jurisdiction and sovereignty of
islands, reefs and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in South China Sea. All the
countries namely China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines,
Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam are bordered with South
China Sea have different claims. On the one hand, China has claimed more than
eighty percent of the sea and on the other hand Vietnam has claimed sovereignty
over Spratly Island.
The claims of Vietnam and Taiwan together cover almost the
whole sea. China has asserted that it has historical claim over the jurisdiction
of the disputed maritime territory but all the other countries are going with
the provisions of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. From December 2013 to
October 2015, China built artificial islands on seven coral reefs of Spratly
Islands in the southern part of the South China Sea. Therefore, the dispute has
been emerged as a flashpoint in Asia.
On January 2013, Philippines have filed an
arbitration suit against China in International Arbitration Tribunal. The
Tribunal ruled in favour of Philippines but China rejected its decision. The
matter has gained all the attention at international level.
South China Sea is a marginal sea of west Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia. It is
one of the considerable flashpoint in Asia. It is bounded by shores of South
China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei,
Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. The South China Sea is connected by Taiwan
Strait with the East China Sea and by Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea in
marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the busiest waterways in the
world. As it is overlapped by several boundaries, it is subjected to matter of
territorial disputes. For decades, the dispute has remained unresolved.
Importance Of South China Sea
The South China Sea plays an extremely significant water body in geopolitical
sense. It is incredibly rich in natural resources. It contains a large variety
of shoals and reefs. According to the US Energy Information Administration, it
is estimated that the region contains around 11 Billion barrels of oil and 190
trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It is one of the major sources of food as it
accounts for ten percent of world's fisheries. According to Department of
Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines, this sea contains about
one-third of world's marine biodiversity. Also, the South China Sea is the most
significant portion of world's merchant shipping as the thirty percent of global
shipping trade goes from here.
- The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia holds
different claims over the territory of the Sea based on historical and
- China claims more than eighty percent of the sea and Spratly Islands
which is the heart of South China Sea as any country would get more territorial
boundary and Exclusive economic zones (EEZ) after including it in its territory.
Also, Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly
Islands. While the Philippines affirms ownership of the Spratly archipelago and
the Scarborough Shoal. The Brunei and Malaysia have asserted sovereignty over
some southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands.
- China's Nine Dash Line is a geographical marker that asserts a
historical claim about its territory. It contravenes with the principles of
Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
- The claims of Vietnam and Taiwan together cover nearly the whole sea.
This territorial dispute has emerged as flashpoint. Currently, five countries
are claiming some parts of sea. Most of countries' claims are based on the
United Nations Law of the Seas. The Convention on the Law of the Sea came into
effect in 1994. According to the United Nations Law of the Seas, a country's
territorial boundary is extended to 200 miles off its shores and this area is
called as the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
Any trade or resources that fall
in a country's EEZ belongs to that country and sovereign territory. Any area
that is not covered under an EEZ is considered as international waters. It
becomes a subject to UN maritime law that means this area can be shared by
everyone. Except China all the other countries like Malaysia, the Philippines,
Brunei, and Vietnam, has made their claim to the South China Sea on the basis of
the UN's EEZ laws.
China asserts that it has historical claim to the South China Sea. After World
War II, the Japanese empire lost their control over the South China Sea. At the
end of World War II, no country claimed a single island in South China Sea. In
15th century, China took the advantage and started drawing dashed line on its
official maps that included most of the South China Sea including Xisha, Nansha,
Dongsha, Zhongsha islands.. In 1973, when UN established EEZs, China reaffirmed
its Nine Dash Line denying the concept of UN's EEZs laws and claims of other
countries. By the early 1970s, issues relating to claims were raised again after
oil was discovered beneath the South China Sea waters.
The Philippines was the
first to move. China followed shortly after that with a carefully coordinated
seaborne invasion of several islands. In 1988, China moved into Spratly
Islands and killed a dozen of Vietnamese sailors. This brought a massive tension
between the countries. For the first time in 1997, Beijing shared its “Nine-dash
Line” extending 1,118 miles from Hainan Island to waters off equatorial Brunei.
In 2002, China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) managed to discuss about the maritime territorial disputes. Finally,
they settled for a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the
South China Sea (DOC) in 2002. Through DOC, China and ASEAN agreed to promote
friendly, peaceful and harmonious environment in South China Sea. In 2005, the
first draft to implement DOC came up but it was not adopted until 2011. In 2013,
the Philippines challenged the historical claims of China under UNCLOS.
Vietnam reclaimed the islands occupied by China since 1970 in 2008. As a result,
in 2016 these reclamations resulted in three military grade ocean airfields that
sent shockwaves in the world by China as it broke its own pledge of not
Since 2014, China has been building artificial islands in the middle of South
China Sea in order to increase its territorial boundary. Activities like
building artificial islands, doing scientific researches come under the purview
of EEZs law. The dispute has centred on Spratly Islands because whichever
country can successfully include them can extend their EEZs. That's why China is
building artificial islands. Other countries have also started building
artificial islands to assert their claims.
The US is associated with many countries bordering South China Sea including
Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam through security commitments. The US
conducted several Freedom from Navigation operations as the South China Sea
plays a crucial role US' trade and commerce. It has made the situation more
Philippines challenged China's territorial claim in International Tribunal under
United Nations Law of the Seas in 2013.
On 25 October 2016, the International Tribunal gave the decision in the favour
of Philippines. But China refused to accept the tribunal's decision and claimed
it as non-binding in nature. Also, the tribunal has found that no island in Spratly Island would be able to sustain human habitation which is not in
accordance to the International Law.
In 2018, US and French forces both conducted navigation operations in disputed
waters. US sent American destroyer in the claimed territory by China to gain
attention of deployed forces.
At Indian Ocean Conference in Maldives in 2019, North Korea attacked China for
building artificial islands illegally. To which China answered that it has
indisputable sovereignty over the territory and hence it's not illegal.
Recently, US and Australia have discarded the China's historical and maritime
territorial claims. Australia has significant interests in the South China Sea,
both economically, in terms of freedom of trade and navigation, and
geopolitically, as the United States is invested in upholding the rules-based
order in the region. Australia has been conducting its own airborne surveillance
operations in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, called Operation Gateway,
These patrols are conducted by P-3 Orion maritime aircraft and some
of them have been verbally challenged by China. While Australia has not
conducted a surface FONOP operation similar to those of the US Navy, it
regularly conducts naval presence patrols, exercises and port calls throughout
the region. As Washington's closest ally in the region, Australia may come under
growing pressure from the United States to make its presence felt in the South
China Sea beyond statements of diplomatic support for freedom of navigation. 
Since China has started building artificial island and deploying forces in the
so called claimed territory, the situation has become more complex. This lead to
nervousness among other claimants and therefore they also started building
artificial islands. This situation has gained international attention as it is
The Republic of the Philippines V. The People's Republic of China
The dispute between Philippines and China arose over ‘maritime entitlements'
disagreements. As China's historical claim is inconsistent with UNCLOS.
On 22 January 2013, the Philippines invoked arbitration against China under
Part XV of UNCLOS. The Philippines asked the Tribunal about the following
- Rule that UNCLOS governs the parties' rights and obligations with
respect to waters, seabed, and maritime features of the South China Sea and that
China's claims to historic rights encompassed in what China terms the "nine-dash
line" are inconsistent with UNCLOS.
- determine whether certain maritime features claimed by both parties are
islands, low tide elevations, or submerged banks under UNCLOS, as well as
whether those features are capable of substantiating claims to an
entitlement to maritime zones greater than twelve miles, and
- recognize the Philippines' rights within and beyond its economic zone
and continental shelf as established under UNCLOS. 
China didn't appear in the arbitration proceedings by denying the legitimacy
of the proceedings. Nonetheless the tribunal considered that it had a duty under
Article 9 of Annex VII of UNCLOS to reassure itself that it had jurisdiction
over the dispute.
Tribunal's Award On Jurisdiction And Admissibility
The Tribunal contemplated two preliminary issues before evaluating its
jurisdiction. Firstly, the Tribunal found that China and the Philippines both
are the party to UNCLOS and therefore both are bound by the jurisdiction of the
Tribunal under Part XV of UNCLOS which talks about issues related to the
applicability of UNCLOS. Also, it was found that neither party had made written
declaration regarding choosing any other form of dispute resolution under
Section 1 of Part XV of UNCLOS. So, the Tribunal held that both the parties had
agreed to arbitration.
Secondly, the Tribunal held that China's refusal to accept the proceedings
of the tribunal didn't bar the proceedings from considering the claims of
Philippines because Article 9 of Annex VII of UNCLOS provides that “absence of a
party or failure of a party to defend its case shall not constitute a bar to the
proceedings” . Also, the tribunal ensured that china's non-appearance doesn't
amount to any prejudice in the proceedings.
On October 25, 2016, The Arbitration Tribunal ruled in favour
But China refused to accept the tribunal's decision and claimed it as
non-binding in nature.
- China's negligent and stubborn approach is making situation more
critical. Also, it is overlooking international law, maritime law and
regulations like UNCLOS.
- Evidences presented by China in order to assert territorial claims are
- Taiwan and China are in dispute over sovereignty issues since 1949. As
Taiwan is a party in this maritime issue, it can create more tensions.
Though Taiwan is not a signatory to UNCLOS as it is not recognised as a state.
- The intervention of US in this dispute is making it more complex as
china and US both don't have friendly relations. The intervention of other
countries like Australia, North Korea can make situation more intense.
- In 2016, the International Arbitration Tribunal found that the land
should be capable to sustain human habitat according to International Law.
And no islands in Spratly Islands met this criterion.
- Further, building of artificial islands by china and other countries has
made the matter multifaceted.
During a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean
Region, India and US discussed about Freedom from Navigation and ensured to
resolve the territorial dispute of the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS.
But after the Philippines won the arbitration award in 2016, India stepped out
and separated itself from the dispute. Because India is not a party to maritime
territorial disputes. Further, India does not want to interfere as it wants to
preserve Wuhan Consensus with China.
Measures Taken So Far
- Despite having differences with China, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte took initiative to resolve the dispute with China through bilateral
- Similarly, Vietnam, the biggest critic of china, has shown its interest
to resolve the dispute with China “in accordance with International Laws”.
- ASEAN is also working with China on an official agreement in order to
avoid clashes and maintain peace.
- Nations should follow new alternative dispute resolutions like mediation
and negotiation to reach out an outcome that would help in harmonising the
- International disputes should be resolved in peaceful manner in
accordance with International law.
- A binding authority should be form like NATO that will help to settle
the dispute by formalizing the rules and regulations.
The South China Sea is one of the most significant commercial gateways. Since
China has started taking violent actions, the situation is getting worse day by
day. The territorial disputes should get resolve in accordance with
International Law in order to ensure harmony and peace.
Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Divyanshi Sharma
Authentication No: OT31582253280-20-1020