The South China Sea Controversy: Mist to be Cleared Up

Filipino military personnel saluting at the BRP Sierra Madre outpost located in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea | Image: Reuters

Territorial disputes between ASEAN member states and China in the South China Sea have never been considered old news to the media in the past four decades. Several upsurges of tension in recent years have increased the possibility of confrontation in the South China Sea. As a result, the predicament between ASEAN and China is still a long way from being settled by peaceful means, when neither has shown any sign of concession to each other.

The South China Sea is one of the busiest global sea passages connecting the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean today. The sea takes a third of global maritime traffic, and as much as 50% of global oil resources are transported from the Malacca Strait – which is located at the southern tip of the South China Sea. These waters are especially valuable to China: 80% of China’s imported oil from the Middle East is transported through the South China Sea. To ASEAN states, the South China Sea has become an indispensable factor in fostering intra-ASEAN trade. These waters have some of the best ports in the world, which undoubtedly improves both trade and relations between ASEAN member states. However, abundant oil resources in the region seems to be a more conceivable factor in explaining the ambitions of ASEAN and China in the crisis. The World Bank estimates that there is at least seven billion barrels of oil reserves and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea – more than anywhere else in the world, except Saudi Arabia.

Dispute in the South China Sea first emerged with the introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) in December 1982. One feature of the UNCLOS states that all “coastal states have sovereign rights in a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities”. With regard to the South China Sea’s case, the concept of the EEZ is controversial to all coastal ASEAN states and China, as it goes against the Chinese concept of “9-dash line” in the waters. The “9-dash line” was inherited from the concept of the “11-dash line” introduced by the Kuomintang government in 1947, highlighting China’s demarcation of territories in the South China Sea. Since then, coastal states like the Philippines and Vietnam have frequently attempted to bring territorial disputes to international tribunals. China has never recognized the legitimacy of the EEZs set by UNCLOS, and has decided not to reach out to any multilateral negotiations with ASEAN member states.

The Philippines is one of the major stakeholders in the South China Sea. The country’s most significant role is its claim and occupation of the Scarborough Shoal –located 115 nautical miles away from the Philippines’ mainland and famous for its rich fishing grounds. The Philippines first officially included the Shoal as its territory in 1997. In April 2012, after spotting eight fishing vessels belonging to Chinese fishermen docking near the Shoal, the Philippines Navy sent out its lead frigate for inspection, and attempted to arrest the Chinese fishermen for illegally catching sea products. The arrest, however, was obstructed by the Chinese Navy, and led to further standoff between the two navies on the Shoal in the next month. The geopolitical advantage of the Philippines in the South China Sea has also encouraged it to maintain a stronghold in the region, including a recent proposal to re-open a naval base in Subic Bay. Located just 270 kilometers away from the Shoal, the Subic Bay Naval Base was once one of the biggest naval bases operated by the U.S. Navy in Asia, and was shut down in 1992 due to a volcano eruption.

Although the Philippines has shown its determination to build a stronghold in the South China Sea, Vietnam has also demonstrated interest in the region. Also a coastal state, Vietnam has been aggressive in its attempts to counteract China’s occupations of islands and reefs in the region. Vietnam has currently occupied 29 islands and reefs in the South China Sea – the highest number amongst all ASEAN member states. A massive anti-China protest in 2015 reflected the frustration of the Vietnamese public with China in the conflict. Rather than simply reinforcing its own military strength, the Vietnamese government has been looking for strong military partners to support its initiatives in its claimed territories. For instance, India has recently become a prospective ally to Vietnam, and the two states have cooperated in several fields, such as oil exploration and national defence partnership. In 2014, Japan also gave six navy ships to Vietnam for sea patrol as part of its strategy of containing China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific. As such, it can be seen that the entry of other powers, like India and Japan, has further complicated the situation in the South China Sea.

Actions carried out by ASEAN member states have evidently outraged China throughout the crisis. However, the consolidation of Chinese supremacy in the South China Sea must not be disregarded when evaluating the current situation. The Chinese government set up the prefecture-level city of Sansha in 2012, which gave China administrative rights over more than 365 million square kilometers of waters in the region. The establishment of the city strengthened the Chinese navy’s control of the waters. Alongside large-scale reclamation projects, militarization on the occupied islands, and the establishment of oil drills, other ASEAN member states have not been capable of challenging China’s domination in the region.

Nevertheless, the influence of the United States’ strategy of “Pivot to Asia” must also not be overlooked. In August 2014, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry first called on ASEAN to “freeze” provocative action in the South China Sea. He also criticized China’s reclamation efforts, for fueling tensions in the South China Sea. In October 2015, the U.S. Navy launched a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, having the warship USS Lassen sail within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys’s Mischief and Subi Reefs. The intent of the U.S was summed up in a statement by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who stated that the FONOP had been done to challenge attempts by claimants to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around features they claimed. Carter’s statement said that these restrictions went against the rights and freedoms afforded to countries through the UNCLOS, that the U.S would continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. This was done in response to Chinese reclamation projects in the two artificial islands.

What the United States intends to gain in the dispute is far more than the reservoir of natural resources underneath the South China Sea. Since East and Southeast Asia are becoming more and more important to the global economy, it has become critical for the United States to re-establish its supremacy in the region – which has decayed since China’s rise as a regional hegemon. While ASEAN is China’s third largest trading partner today, it is also concerned about China’s expanding territorial claims in the South China Sea. In addition, the United States is undoubtedly the most reliable and the most powerful partner to support ASEAN in containing Chinese power in the region. By providing economic and military assistance to the member states of ASEAN, the United States would not only benefit from re-building its leading role in Asia, but also paves the way for it to strengthen economic co-operation and diplomatic relations with ASEAN member states.

The disputes in the South China Sea is far more than a confrontation between many of the ASEAN states and China. The inability to reach a binding code of conduct between the two actors in 2012 has proven that tensions cannot simply be resolved by multilateral dialogue and negotiations. The entry of several major powers into the Asia-Pacific, particularly the United States, has further increased the complexity of the dispute. As such, it remains very unlikely that the mist in the region will be easily cleared up.

The content of this article does not represent the positions or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.


Arthur Lui is a 2nd year student studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, and Contemporary Asian Studies. Arthur currently serves as a Lead Editor of the Southeast Asia Section at Synergy: The Journal o Contemporary Asian Studies.

Arthur Lui
About Arthur Lui 4 Articles
Arthur Lui is a 2nd year student studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, and Contemporary Asian Studies. He currently serves as event reporter and copy editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, Southeast Asia section.

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