Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea
An armed confrontation in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants to disputed maritime areas
Territorial and jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea continue to strain relationships between China and other countries in Southeast Asia, risking escalation into a military clash. The United States has sought to uphold freedom of navigation and support other nations in Southeast Asia that have been affected by China’s assertive territorial claims and land reclamation efforts. In the fall of 2015, the United States signaled that it will challenge China’s assertion of sovereignty over disputed territory by flying military aircraft and deploying ships near some of the islands.
In recent years, satellite imagery has shown China’s increased efforts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating altogether new islands. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Spratly Islands.
China’s sweeping claims to sovereignty over the sea—and the sea’s alleged 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonized competing claimants Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As early as the 1970s, countries began to claim islands and various zones like as the Spratly islands, which may possess natural resources and rich fishing areas, in the South China Sea as their own.
China maintains that under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). According to the United States, countries should have freedom of navigation through EEZs in the sea and are not required to notify claimants of military activities. China’s claims threaten sea lines of communication, which are important maritime passages that facilitate trade and the movement of naval forces.
In recent years, China has built three airstrips on the Spratly Islands to extend its presence in disputed waters. China has warned its Southeast Asian neighbors against drilling for oil and gas in the contested region, disrupting other nations’ oil exploration and seismic survey activities. To challenge China’s claims in international waters, the United States has deployed destroyer ships on missions in the South China Sea. Currently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is hearing a claim brought by the Philippines against China, although Beijing refuses to accept the court’s authority.
The United States, which maintains important interests in ensuring freedom of navigation and securing sea lines of communication, has expressed support for an agreement on a binding code of conduct and other confidence-building measures. The United States has a role in preventing military escalation resulting from the territorial dispute. However, Washington’s defense treaty with Manila could draw the United States into a China-Philippines conflict over the substantial natural gas deposits in the disputed Reed Bank or the lucrative fishing grounds of the Scarborough Shoal. A dispute between China and Vietnam over territorial claims could also threaten the military and commercial interests of the United States. The failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes by diplomatic means could undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilizing arms buildups.
- The Overlooked Gap in the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative
April 28, 2016
- South China Sea Interactive Map
- How China’s fishermen are fighting a covert war in the South China Sea
April 12, 2016
- Why the South China Sea Could be the Next Global Flashpoint
April 8, 2016
- China v the rest
March 26, 2016
- China's Short-Term Victory In the South China Sea
March 21, 2016
- Philippines v. China arbitration: be careful what you wish for
March 17, 2016
- Maritime Disputes in Asia
- What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea
- Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters
January 26, 2016
- By 2030, South China Sea will be ‘virtually a Chinese lake,’ study warns
January 20, 2016
- America vs. China: Showdown in the South China Sea?
November 12, 2015
- Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy
- South China Sea Overview
- Remarks by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii
May 27, 2015
- China's Military Strategy
State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China
- Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015
- Position Paper on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration
December 7, 2014
- Surface Tension: Chinese Aggression Roils Southeast Asian Waters
April 12, 2016
- Xi Jinping on the Global Stage
Robert D. Blackwill and Kurt M. Campbell
- China's Maritime Disputes
- A China-Vietnam Military Clash
- A Security Message for the South China Sea
August 4, 2015
- Conflict in the South China Sea
Bonnie S. Glaser
- South China Sea Tensions
- Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China
Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis, Council Special Report
- Legal Posturing and Power Relations in the South China Sea
Matthew C. Waxman
January 21, 2015