South China Sea Dispute


China has been pushing its presence in the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries while claimants are preoccupied tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the United States to call on China to stop its “bullying behaviour” there.

  • In April, Beijing unilaterally declared the creation of new administrative districts on islands in the troubled waterways to which Vietnam and the Philippines also have competing claims.
  • In early April, Vietnam said one of its fishing boats was sunk by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel.
  • In January, Chinese boat trespassed into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zoneoff the coast of the northern islands of Natuna.
  • Because of these incidents, Vietnam and the Philippines have warned of growing insecurity in Southeast Asia.
  • Besides, the oft mentioned Nine-Dash line that China uses as a basis for its claims in the waters is once again at odds with Indonesia’s claim that the line lacks an international legal basis.

South China Sea

South China Sea is an arm of western Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia.

  • It is south of China, east & south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines and north of the island of Borneo.
  • Bordering states & territories (clockwise from north): the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
  • It is connected by Taiwan Strait with the East China Sea and by Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea.
  • It contains numerous shoals, reefs, atolls and islands. The Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal are the most important.


  • This sea holds tremendous strategic importance for its location as it is the connecting link between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. (Strait of Malacca)
  • According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) one-third of the global shipping passes through it, carrying trillions of trade which makes it a significant geopolitical water body.
  • According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines, this sea has one-third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity and contains lucrative fisheries providing food security to the Southeast Asian nations.
  • South China Sea is believed to have huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed.


China claims most of the contested sea, reaching almost to the philippines shores and has built artificial islands with heavy military developments on them which worries the neighbouring nations and it rejects the UN backed international tribunal ruling as well.

The nine dash line asserted by China violates the principle of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.

Four of the ASEAN nations also made territorial claims on the disputed waters which adds to the problem with already non-negotiable behaviour of China.

  1. China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
  2. Vietnam hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it.
  3. Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) – a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.
  4. Malaysia and Brunei lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys

Challenges Involved

  • China’s behavior of negligence, denial and the sense of superiority while overlooking international laws and regulations like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • Along with China’s bullying tactics, North Korea’s provocative behaviour has attracted US aircrafts in the already troubled waters. The growth of military vessels and planes in the area makes it more challenging to handle.
  • Undefined geographic scope of the South China Sea; disagreement over dispute settlement mechanisms; different approaches to conflict management (self-restraint, mutual trust, and confidence building); and the undefined legal status of the Code of Conduct (COC) add to it.
  • The different histories of distant, largely uninhabited archipelagos of the sea make the matter more complicated and multifaceted.
  • One of the fundamental principles of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been to resolve regional disputes by peaceful means. But over the years, the position of ASEAN on the South China Sea disputes has weakened its image internationally and failing to resolve this issue would lead to questions being raised about its credibility as an effective regional organization.

Way forward

  • New arbitration processes to bring necessary mediation, facilitation and binding resolution mechanism which can move the military dispute to border management and to joint development finally.
  • Adopting the concept of joint development zones, which resolves the territorial disputes and allows to pursuit of joint commercial activities, environmental protection, disaster relief and humanitarian perspective and counter-piracy control.
  • International disputes should be settled by peaceful means in line with international laws on the principle of safeguarding maritime security, navigation and overflight rights and freedoms.
  • Forming an overarching authority like NATO or European Union (EU) with China as a member, in Asia to settle grievances and specifically find solutions to Asian problems, might help resolve disputes like this.
Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), 2002

  • The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China engaged in discussions on a potential COC to manage the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes for a very long time and finally settled for a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002.
  • ASEAN and China agreed to promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea for the enhancement of peace, stability, economic growth and prosperity in the region.
  • It reaffirms respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • In 2005, the first draft of guidelines to implement the DOC was drawn up, but not adopted until 2011.
  • However, problems still linger so a plan for more robust policies is needed.
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