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 and risk 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 of 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 as their own islands and various zones in the South China Sea such as the Spratly islands, which may possess rich natural resources and fishing areas.
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 response to China’s assertive presence in the disputed territory, Japan sold military ships and equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam in order to improve their maritime security capacity and to deter Chinese aggression.
In recent years, China has built three airstrips on the contested Spratly Islands to extend its presence in disputed waters, and militarized Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system. China has warned its Southeast Asian neighbors against drilling for oil and gas in the contested region, which has disrupted other nations’ oil exploration and seismic survey activities. To challenge China’s claims in international waters, the United States has occasionally deployed destroyer ships on freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to promote freedom of passage. 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.
- Soft Power: Beijing Puts on a Show on Disputed South China Sea Island
Jane Perlez and Yufan Huang
May 5, 2016
- U.S. Credibility in the South China Sea
William G. Frasure
May 3, 2016
- 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
- What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea
- 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
- South China Sea and Freedom of Navigation
Jonathan G. Odom
March 9, 2016
- Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters
January 26, 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
- Xi Jinping on the Global Stage
Robert D. Blackwill and Kurt M. Campbell
- China's Maritime Disputes
- Surface Tension: Chinese Aggression Roils Southeast Asian Waters
April 12, 2016
- 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