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I.

The Situation in the South China Sea

I ntroduction and Geography

The South China Sea is a part of the appendage of the Pacific Ocean.
Located between the Strait of Malacca in the southwest to the Strait of
Taiwan in the northeast the South China Sea encompasses an area of
around 3.5 million square kilometres, an area larger than India. States
with a share of coastline are the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam,
Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Republic
of China.
2
The South China Sea comprises over 200 mostly uninhabited
islands and cays which are subjects of numerous territorial disputes. The
most important archipelagos are the Spratley Islands, the Paracel Islands,
the Scarborough Reef and the Zhongsha Islands, also called Macclesfield
Bank. The cause of these disputes are mostly of economic nature: the
South China Sea is thought to be one of the richest regions in Southeast
Asia concerning natural resources, primarily oil, natural gas and lucrative
fishing grounds.
3
According to the U.S. Energy Information
Administration the oil reserves are an estimated 11 billion barrels and the
natural gas resources are an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet.
4
If these figures are proven adequate the oil and gas
resources beneath the South China Sea would be one of the largest reserves in the world. But not only the vast
natural resources are of strategic importance. The South China Sea is also home to one of the most important
sea-lanes in the world. By connecting the economic superpower China with the Indian Ocean and by this means
the India, the Middle East and Europe through the Street of Malacca the South China Sea is of great importance
to commercial and also military shipping. This region is also a hotspot for piracy, especially around Singapore.
5

Historical Background
Since World War II the South China Sea has seen several conflicts claiming several dozen victims. After the
Spratley Islands were occupied by Japan during the war, China reclaimed the archipelago in 1946, causing
tensions with the Philippines which also claimed parts of the Spratley Islands as well as the Scarborough Reef.
6

Tensions arose again in the 1970’s, when China occupied the Vietnamese controlled Paracel Islands in 1974. As
a vengeance (South) Vietnam took over the Spratley Islands in 1975. In 1978 President Ferdinand Marcos
demanded the entire South China Sea for the Philippines. China and Vietnam openly fought a battle near the
Spratley Islands in 1988.
7
The 1990’s were characterized by the growing influence of China, which claimed the
whole South China Sea for itself causing tensions with the neighboring states. In 1995 and again in 1998 China
and the Philippines had a crisis over the Mischief Reef and the Chinese artificial island constructed there.
8

Another serious conflict was the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, when the People’s Republic of China launched
several missiles for military exercises during the Presidential elections in Taiwan.
9
There were also several
smaller incidents concerning conflicts over fishing stocks between China and the Philippines. The 1990’s also
brought a change to political negotiations in the region. The ASEAN states formed a coalition as a
countermeasure to face the increasingly powerful China, adopting a joint declaration renouncing the use of
violence.
10
However, the fact that the smaller states of the region joined against China did not mean that the
disputes among them were settled too. China at first refused to negotiate with ASEAN but agreed to discuss the
issue with the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
11
In 2002, ASEAN and China jointly signed a Regional Code of
Conduct in favor of stability and commercial cooperation. Since then no major incidents have occurred though
there have been some minor quarrels in recent time.
12
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1
Illustration: U.S. Energy Information Administration: South China Sea, 2013.
2
Rahman; Tsamenyi: A Strategic Perspective on Security and Naval Issues in the South China Sea. In: McDorman:
Maritime Issues in the South China Sea. New York: Routledge, 2013, p.36.
3
McColl: Encyclopedia of World Geography. New York: Golson Books Ltd., 2005, p.845-846.
4
Global Security, Territorial Claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, 2011
5
Ali: Waters near Johor and Malacca now world's top piracy hotbed, 2013.
6
Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea, 2011.
7
Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea, 2011.
8
Tønneson: An International History of the Dispute in the South China Sea, 2001.
9
Global Security: Taiwan Strait 21 July 1995 to 23 March 1996, 2014.
10
Tønneson: An International History of the Dispute in the South China Sea, 2001.
11
Tønneson: An International History of the Dispute in the South China Sea, 2001.
12
Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea, 2011.


Legal foundations and Territorial Claims

Because of its vast natural resources and significant strategic importance to the region the riparian states have
covered the South China Sea with several claims. These claims have two origins and are mostly contradicting
other claims. At the same time there is a legal framework which regulates eligible claims: the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
13
Adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994 the UNCLOS
defines the territorial extent of riparian states and establishes guidelines for the management of maritime
resources. Most importantly the UNCLOS implemented so called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
14
The EEZ
stretch up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline and entitles the country to exploit natural resources
and at the same time apply own laws and regulations, e.g. sovereign rights and fishing regulations.
15
Another
important territorial definition is the continental shelf regulation.
16
A continental shelf is the extension of a
landmass under water to the point, where shallow waters descend to the abyssal sea (2500 m). Within this zone a
riparian state may exploit non-living natural resources, e.g. oil or natural gas.
17
The salient point of this
regulation is that islands and archipelagos are considered sovereign territory, hence the control of even the
smallest cay with the respective legal interpretation entitles a state to deploy an EEZ. In the case of the South
China Sea the UNCLOS regulations lead to several overlapping claims of the affected countries. Naturally no
state relinquishes its claims in favor of others. Au contraire every state insists on its sovereign rights within the
EEZ, evoking tensions and conflicts. The second origin of territorial claims in the South China Sea is found in
history. Especially China but also other states like Vietnam allege claims through past possessions reaching back
as far as the 17
th
century.
18
China also claims the South China Sea through a historic perspective. Apparently
there have been naval expeditions during the Han and Ming Dynasty to the Spratley Islands in the middle ages.
19

After World War II China launched a map of the South China Sea containing 9 undefined lines defining the
Chinese claims in the sea including the Spratley and Paracel Islands.
20
Besides the People’s Republic of China
also Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam allege claims through historic reasons. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei
stick to the UNCLOS continental shelf regulations yet these countries also have territorial disputes through the
vast definition of the Exclusive Economic Zones.

Potential Flashpoints and Centers of Conflict

Not only are the natural resources a cause for conflicts in the South China Sea. There are several other reasons
why the South China Sea arouses tensions among the riparian states. The South China sea plays a crucial part in
global trade. About 1/3 of global oil and more than half of the world’s natural gas is shipped through the South
China Sea.
21
In total numbers this means that more than 117.000 ships enter the sea meaning that over 50 percent
of the global trade passes through the sea lanes of the South China Sea.
22
These numbers are expected to grow
since the world’s oil consumption will double by the year 2040.
23
Another cause for conflict is the shift in
military power. For the last decades the United States of America was the primary military player and still is
determined to keep this position.
24
With China emerging and increasing its military expenditures this position is
more and more questioned. China is currently in possession of an aircraft carrier and has announced to build up
to four more.
25
Alongside the growing naval military strength of China rise the concerns of the smaller states of
the region going rack and ruin next to such a strong neighbor. To avoid too many dependencies the other
Southeast Asian states cooperate through ASEAN and in this way form an alliance together with the United
States in opposition to China.
26
In recent times China has announced to start regular naval patrols in the South
China Sea. The civilian vessel, based on the Paracel Islands has the task to protect China’s maritime interests.
27

This marks a new peak in the increasingly tense conflict over the South China Sea. Already on December 5,
2013 a Chinese and US Navy vessel nearly collided during an unfriendly maneuver.
28


__________
13
UNCLOS, 1982.
14
UNCLOS, Articles 55-75.
15
UNCLOS, Articles 56-57, 73.
16
UNCLOS, Articles 76-85.
17
UNCLOS, Article 77/4.
18
National Committee for Border Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Historical documents on Vietnam's sovereignty over Paracel and Spratley Islands, 2011.
19
Global Security, Territorial Claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, 2011.
20
Global Security, Territorial Claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, 2011.
21
U.S. Energy Information Administration: South China Sea, 2013.
22
U.S. Energy Information Administration: South China Sea, 2013.
23
U.S. Energy Information Administration: International Energy Outlook 2013, 2013.
24
U.S. Department of Defense, Gates: U.S. Committed to Robust Presence in East Asia, 2011.
25
Blanchard, China building second aircraft carrier: Reports, 2014.
26
Carpenter, Obama’s Dangerous South China Sea Strategy, 2013.
27
Blanchard, China to start regular patrols from island in South China Sea, 2014.
28
Perlez, American and Chinese Navy Ships Nearly Collided in South China Sea, 2013.

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