South China Sea Dispute

Written by: Margaret Santandreu, Associate Editor

For years there has been an ongoing maritime claims dispute over the South China Sea among various countries including China, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. The dispute is over territorial control, freedom of navigation, shipping lines, and exploitation of natural resources of oil and gas. The disputed territories include Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Mischief Reefs, and other land territories, reefs, continental shelves and banks. China over the years has been exercising its dominance in the region by conducting military exercises and creating artificial islands with military facilities such as naval ports and airline strips, to extend their sovereignty. In 2017 alone, China’s construction projects covered 72 acres in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is a massive shipping passage with 5.3 trillion dollars’ worth of trade cruising through its waters every year. This is almost 1/3 of all global maritime trade. The South China Sea is the shortest way to get from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Below the surface of the waters is natural resources of oil and gas. The United States has estimated around 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

International law states every country can claim up to 12 nautical miles from its coast as its territory and claim up to 200 nautical miles as its exclusive economic zone for things like mining and fishing. China is asserting they have an exception to this rule and own 90% of the South China Sea alone.

China claims the nine-dash line which refers to the number of lines drawn on an original map to mark boundaries of China’s maritime claim. The nine-dash line first appeared on a Chinese map about 70 years ago and now Beijing is claiming this serves as historical evidence that they own 90% of the South China Sea. The nine-dash line is less than 200 nautical miles away from some coastal areas like Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam. These countries argue the areas China claims fall within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by the UN Convention of the Laws of the Sea.

In 2016, the International Court in The Hauge struck down China’s territorial claim, stating China had no legal basis to claim historic rights over the South China Sea, and that it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights. Further, the nine-dash line reaches as far away as 1200 nautical miles from the South of China. Most of the region was happy with this decision, however, the Chinese government pretended the ruling never happened and has built more artificial islands since. This has made surrounding nations and the United States nervous. The United States sends military ships through the waters occasionally to assert navigation rights and freedoms in the contested waters. The Chinese government gave the Trump administration a warning; the more ships the U.S. brings to the South China Sea, the more China will step up its presence.

In August 2020, China fired a barrage of medium range missiles across the South China Sea to demonstrate strategic dominance and sovereignty over the disputed waters. The United States continues its freedom of navigation missions having U.S. Navy ships sail within 12 nautical miles of disputed land territories to challenge China’s “excessive maritime claims”.

Hamzah Taoqeer, South China Sea Dispute: In Light of International Law of the Seas, Modern Diplomacy (Aug. 19, 2020) available at  

Steven Lee Myers and Keith Bradsher, China Fires Missiles into South China Sea, Sending U.S. a Message, The New York Times (Aug. 27, 2020) available at

United Nations Convention on the Law of Seas available at

The Associated Press, China Protests Latest US Navy Mission in South China Sea, Military Times (Oct. 10, 2020) available at

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