What Is The South China Sea Issue


The South China Sea issue is one of the most pressing international disputes of our time. Located in the western part of the Pacific Ocean and bordered by more than a dozen countries, the South China Sea has long been seen as an international flashpoint. This region is important for its strategic position, natural resources, and economic value. As such, it is no surprise that it has been the focal point of political, military, and economic tensions between rival countries for decades.

The most immediate source of this tension traces back to a series of territorial disputes in the region. It involves contrasting claims of ownership by different countries over various islands, reefs, and continental shelves within the South China Sea. All of the countries involved in the dispute have a vested interest in the control of the region, and all of them are armed with their own set of facts and arguments. For example, China and Taiwan both claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, and the Philippines and Vietnam both claim ownership over the Scarborough Shoal.


The South China Sea is one of the most resource-rich areas in the world and has extensive offshore oil and natural gas reserves. It covers about 3.5 million square kilometers and is flanked by nine countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia. Aside from its economic and energy wealth, it also serves as an important shipping lane. The total value of ship-borne trade crossing the South China Sea amounts to 3.2 trillion USD per year, a third of the global maritime trade. Goods such as oil, gas, and other commodities are transported through the South China Sea and form an essential part of the global economy.

The first recorded dispute over the South China Sea began in the 1950s, when China and the then-British colonial administration of the Philippines began competing for territorial control of the Spratly Islands. Since then, China has been the dominant claimant over the territory, and its control has been heavily contested and overshadowed by the other countries in the region, leading to increasing and long-standing disputes.

China’s Maritime Claims

China claims an area of the South China Sea known as the “nine-dash line”. This vast, undefined area encompasses approximately two-thirds of the South China Sea, covering reefs, islets, and sea lanes within waters claimed by other countries. These claims were initially formulated in 1947 and 1952 maps, before being officially declared by China in the 1970s. Despite the revolutionary changes brought about by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, China has largely held on to its marine claim in the region.

This claim maintained by China has been widely condemned by the international community. There is not enough supporting evidence to prove that China has sovereignty over the nine-dash line, and any action taken by the Chinese government to enforce this claim would be considered a violation of international law. Despite this, China has continued to assert its authority over the disputed islands in the region, which has led to heightened tensions between the country and other claimants.

Effects On The Environment

The dispute in the South China Sea has caused significant degradation of the region’s marine environment. Marine life such as sharks, coral, and fish have been heavily impacted by the construction of artificial islands and the creation of military bases by countries in the region. In addition, the pollution caused by dead zones has had a negative effect on the area’s biodiversity. There are various reasons behind this, such as the use of chemical fertilizers and land reclamation, as well as illegal activities such as fishing, poaching, and oil spills.

The situation is worsened by China’s disregard for the environmental consequences of its development projects in the area. The Chinese government has made efforts to mitigate the environmental damage caused by its activities, but its efforts have been largely inadequate and ineffective.

International Arbitration

The tensions in the South China Sea have been further aggravated by the lack of an effective dispute resolution framework. International law does not favor a single claimant in such disputes, and any resolution must be achieved through negotiation and conciliation. In this regard, a number of international arbitration cases have been filed by various countries in the region, including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In most cases, the rulings of the tribunals have favored the claimants but have not led to a lasting resolution of the dispute.

The international legal system is not fully equipped to address the complexities of multi-party disputes such as the one in the South China Sea. This is because the system relies on the parties involved to abide by international norms, which is often not the case in intensely contested disputes. As such, the resolution of the South China Sea dispute is likely to remain elusive unless there is a wider international consensus on the matter.

Political And Military Posturing

China’s actions in the South China Sea have aggravated the situation even further, with the country consistently deploying frigates, submarines, dredgers, and even military aircraft in the disputed areas. China has also sent its Coast Guard vessels to patrol and assert the country’s claims in the region, including a number of stand-offs over some of the disputed islands. These displays of military might have added fuel to the dispute and drawn criticism from other claimants.

The Chinese government has justified its militarization of the region by citing the need for self-defense. However, many analysts have argued that this is not the only goal of China’s belligerent posturing. Instead, it is seen as a means of reasserting the country’s power in the region and intimidating rival nations, as well as a show of force to any potential adversaries who might challenge its control in the South China Sea.

Regional Organizations

As a way to ease tensions, a number of regional organizations have been established between claimant countries in an effort to better facilitate dialogue, confidence-building, and cooperation. These organizations include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the East Asian Summit. While they are intended to promote peace and stability in the region, they have not been successful in resolving the dispute, as countries involved in the conflict are wary of entering into any agreements that might undermine their own claims.

There is also the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is an important framework for resolving maritime disputes between countries. It is intended to provide a mechanism for maritime dispute resolution that is based on international law. Despite this, UNCLOS has not been implemented effectively in the South China Sea, as all of the countries involved in the dispute have yet to ratify the agreement.

Current State Of Affairs

The South China Sea issue remains unresolved, as all claimants in the region have in one way or another staked their claims over the disputed territory. Encroaching military bases, tensions between regional powers, and environmental degradation are all realities in the South China Sea.

It is clear that the international community cannot look to any single resolution to solve the complex, multifaceted conflict. Rather, lasting peace in the region must come from a combination of diplomatic approaches through regional organizations, international arbitration, and careful consideration of the interests of all relevant parties.

Ferne Chang is an avid sailor with a passion for all things maritime. She has a Master’s degree in Maritime Studies from the University of Liverpool which has enabled her to create a successful career in writing and research about world seas. She currently produces articles for online publications on topics ranging from shipbuilding to maritime law and cruising. Ferne also serves as a consulting editor for various maritime, trade, environment and policy journals. In her spare time, she enjoys sailing and exploring the world’s oceans with her family and friends.

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