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Published on Sep 19, 2013 in Asia, China, Featured Articles, News

South China Sea

Historically, most people outside of Asia don’t know much about the South China Sea. They know it must be close to China and that it’s a body of water, but it’s not something most Westerners are knowledgeable about. In actuality, the South China Sea is a strategically important waterway, a fact that is not lost on China or other countries in the region. In recent years, according to the New York Times, China has been militarily aggressive in the South China Sea and has made sweeping sovereignty claims and confrontations over disputed islands and even specks of rock. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that the South China Sea is the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian oceans with, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost a third of global crude oil and half of global liquefied natural gas passing through it each year. The second, and fundamentally more important reason, is that the entire area is rich in gas, oil, and other resources, such as abundant fishing grounds.

The southwest portion of the South China Sea begins in Singapore and the Strait of Malacca and extends to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast. This inland sea extends past the following countries: China, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei, North Borneo, and Indonesia, and encompasses 1.16 million square miles. It’s a large area that’s strategically and economically important to the countries bordering it.

China and its neighboring countries have primarily feuded over which country has territorial sovereignty over two groups of islands and a shoal in the South China Sea: the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. The Paracel and Spratly chains contain the largest uninhabited islands in the area. Since militarily China is in a stronger position than other surrounding countries, some of its neighbors, such as the Philippines, have chosen to take China to an international arbitration panel in an effort to resolve the sovereignty issues to these islands. China, for its part, refused to participate claiming that the arbitration panel doesn’t have jurisdiction over the dispute. As a result the Chinese navy in the South China Sea has become more aggressive and in the last year. For instance, they’ve elected to simply take control of the Scarborough Shoal rather than work through a negotiation process. This shoal was previously under the control of the Philippine navy and was also used by both Chinese and Philippine fishermen.

Let me explain a little more about these areas of dispute in the South China Sea.

Photo from

Photo from

The Paracel Islands are located off the coast of Vietnam and are also in close proximity of the Chinese island of Hainan. In fact, this archipelago is equidistant between Vietnam and the Chinese mainland and consists of over 30 islets, sandbanks, and reefs. Chinese relics dating back to both the Tang (618 AD – 906 AD) and Song (960 AD – 1279 AD) Dynasties can be found on the island. Vietnam has responded to China’s historical claims by saying that it’s established commercial activities on the islands, which includes fishing, since at least the 15th century and that China never really had a presence on the islands.

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s main claim to the islands lies in the fact that in 1887 French colonials ruled over the islands and then bequeathed administrative control to South Vietnam in 1954. Two decades later Vietnam attempted to build an air base there, but the Chinese government didn’t want a foreign military this close to their mainland. In 1974 they therefore sent ships to the Paracel Islands to prevent construction of the air base. The Vietnam navy also sent ships and troops to the islands and a naval battle ensued. The Chinese navy pummeled the Vietnamese navy and, in addition, bombed the island destroying what infrastructure the Vietnamese had put in place. The Chinese then took possession of the Paracel’s and have never relinquished control since. The question you might ask is why such a militarily insignificant island is being fought over. The reason is that the surrounding waters is thought to contain a great deal of petroleum deposits. Both the Vietnamese and the Chinese government want to access these natural resources. In addition, the Chinese view control of the islands as a defensive maneuver maintaining their military control in the region.

The Spratlys islands, a group of 750 tiny islands, reefs, islets, and shoals, are located off the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. In fact, tiny doesn’t begin to describe the 4 square kilometers of land spread over 450,000 square kilometers of sea. These islands are claimed by China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. They’re viewed as strategically important because they lie on the primary trade route between Europe and the Middle East. But a much more important reason is that they contain an estimated 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 105 billion barrels of oil, and 370,000 tons of phosphor. The area is also rich in fishing.

Just as with the Paracel Islands, neighboring countries know they don’t have the military might to oppose China in this area without help from the United States, which has been reluctant to come to their assistance. Nevertheless, for the time being, Vietnam occupies or controls more than 20 of the Spratly islands and reefs, Taiwan has a garrison controlled by its coastguard on the largest island, the Philippines occupy 9 of the Spratlys, Malaysia occupies 3 of the islands, and China occupies 7 of the Spratlys as a result of a 1988 naval battle with Vietnam.

The Scarborough Shoal is a group of very small islands and reefs 123 miles west of Subic Bay in the Philippines. The name comes from an East India company tea ship that hit the rocks there in 1794 and sank. Scarborough Shoal is currently claimed by China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The Chinese claim that the shoal was discovered by Guo Shoujing, the same person who was said to have discovered the Paracel Islands. Taiwan, for its part, indicates that the shoal has belonged to them from as far back as 1935, and is actually a part of the Zhongsha Islands. The Philippines, an archipelagic state, claims the shoals and islands are part of the Philippines because it’s within their 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and has been used by them as far back as when the Spanish colonized the area. The Chinese don’t seem to accept any of these arguments and have effectively taken military control of Scarborough Shoal.

The South China Sea is militarily and economically important to China, as well as its neighboring countries. Every country involved in this dispute would like to participate in the area’s economic wealth in natural resources and fishing. In addition, China would like to have control of the critical maritime shipping lanes as well as prevent a foreign power from stationing troops or military hardware close to its shores. Therefore, even though the South China Sea isn’t familiar to most Westerners, in Asia it’s the focus of future economic wealth and strategic security.

Alan Refkin

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