The South China Sea Dispute explained; including latest reports

Disagreements about rights over the waters and the natural resources therein, have somehow, always existed in the South China Sea but there was a long period of calm when nations were busy with other overwhelming affairs. Recently however, tensions have been seeping in and rising steadily over the last few years.

From a bird’s eye-view, dotting the vast expanse of the South China Sea are hundreds of tiny islets. These islands have become the centre of a brewing storm of a fierce, territorial dispute between six coastal countries. The countries locked in conflicting claims for areas in the South China Sea are Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. These countries regularly clash over their rights in the nearby waters as well as the seabed underneath, stopping just short of shooting and killing, and there seems to be no easy or early resolution in sight.

Almost everyone has heard of The South China debate. The disputes in the South China Sea have been in the headlines, more often than not and they seem set to continue churning out more and more controversies.

Why are the South China Seas so important and what is the squabbling all about anyways? We explain here.

Geographically, The South China Sea is a part of the Pacific Ocean bordered by China, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

The islands of the South China Sea can largely be grouped into two island chains. The Paracel Islands are clustered in the northwest corner of the Sea, and the Spratly Islands in the southeast corner. Other islands are the Pratas Islands, Natuna Islands. Alongside the proper islands there is a scattering of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs such as the Scarborough Reef.

The South China Seas are a major shipping route for a considerable portion of the world’s merchant shipping, which carries on towards the Malacca, Sunda and Lombak Straits. Bordered as it is by growing economies, ships carry goods to and fro across these waters. Trillions of dollars worth of merchandise flow over these waters annually.

The South China Sea also contains rich and plentiful fishing grounds which supply ample livelihood to the local people . It is also believed that floor of the South China Sea may contain massive minerals, oil and natural gas reserves.

The main source of conflict happens to be China, who, in recent times seems to be claiming a disproportionately giant share of the seas. These claims are being contested by the other countries.

To establish reasonable laws for the claims of territorial rights over the waters The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was formed In 1982. In 1994 it formulated the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), for each country, an area that would extend 200 nautical miles from that country’s coastline and would give that nation sole rights of exploitation of natural reserves within that area.

UNCLOS has been signed and agreed upon by nearly all the coastal countries in the South China Sea, and China too is one of the signatories. However, China does not feel the need to stand by the decisions of UNCLOS.

It bases it’s territorial rights over the seas according to the nine-dash line on a map made by the Chinese Government in 1958. The nine dash line encloses an area which stretches hundreds of miles South and East from the southernmost province of Hainan and which include a majority of the islands in the South China Sea.

south china sea dispute
courtesy of BBC, source: UNCLOS And CIA

Vietnam contests this claim saying it has documents to prove that in fact Vietnam has held sovereignty over the Parcel and Spratly Islands since the 17th century.

Philippines says that it is geographically closest to the Spratly Islands and by that reason alone the islands belong to them.

Malaysia and Brunei are sticking with the UNCLOS decision and assert their claim within that range.

The Spratly Islands are claimed in parts by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia.

The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The Scarborough Shoal, is claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan.

A recent new map of China mid-2014 shows a controversial ten-dash line encompassing the South China Sea, all the islands and Taiwan.

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