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Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea

Updated March 19, 2024
U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Strait of Malacca on April 1, 2018.
(U.S. Navy/Rivera/Reuters)
China's aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in a military drill in the western Pacific Ocean on April 18, 2018.
The U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, transits the South China Sea with the missile destroyer USS Halsey and the missile cruiser USS Shiloh, on June 18, 2021.
Rawad Madanat/Flicker
Protestors display placards during a rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Makati, the Philippines, to protest China's reclamation activities in the South China Sea on February 10, 2018.
Chinese warships and fighter jets take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018.
Chinese sailors march during the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--China Maritime Exercise at a military port in Zhanjiang, China, on October 22, 2018.
STR/AFP via Getty
China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conducts a drill with accompanying fleet in the South China Sea in December, 2016.
U.S. Marines observe the USS Bunker Hill from a helicopter during a simulated military exercise, on March 15, 2020
Isaac Cantrell/Flickr
Pictured is an aerial view of Dongsha Atoll, also known as Pratas Atoll, in the South China Sea, on July 27, 2020.
Gallo Images/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data

China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea—and the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonized competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. As early as the 1970s, countries began to claim islands and various zones in the South China Sea, such as the Spratly Islands, which possess rich natural resources and fishing areas. The failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes diplomatically could undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilizing arms buildups.

China maintains [PDF] that, under international law, foreign militaries cannot conduct intelligence-gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). According to the United States, claimant countries, under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), should have freedom of navigation through EEZs in the sea and are not required to notify claimants of military activities. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled on a claim brought against China by the Philippines under UNCLOS, ruling in favor of the Philippines on almost every count. While China is a signatory to the treaty establishing the tribunal, it refuses to accept the court’s authority.

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 new islands altogether. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty and seven outposts, respectively. China has militarized Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system.

The United States, which maintains important interests in ensuring freedom of navigation and securing sea lines of communication (SLOCs), has expressed support for an agreement on a binding code of conduct and other confidence-building measures. China’s claims threaten SLOCs, which are important maritime passages that facilitate trade and the movement of naval forces. To protect its political, security, and economic interests in the region, the United States has challenged China’s assertive territorial claims and land reclamation efforts by conducting freedom of navigation operations and bolstering support for Southeast Asian partners. Washington’s defense treaty with Manila could draw the United States into a potential China-Philippines conflict over the substantial natural gas deposits or lucrative fishing grounds in disputed territory.

Also, in response to China’s assertive presence in the disputed territory, Japan has sold military ships and equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam to improve their maritime security capacity and to deter Chinese aggression.

Recent Developments

Tensions between China and both the Philippines and Vietnam have recently cooled, even as China increased its military activity in the South China Sea by conducting a series of naval maneuvers and exercises in March and April 2018. Meanwhile, China continues to construct military and industrial outposts on artificial islands it has built in disputed waters.

The United States has also stepped up its military activity and naval presence in the region in recent years, including freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in January and March 2018. In a speech during his November 2017 visit to Southeast Asia, President Donald J. Trump emphasized the importance of such operations, and of ensuring free and open access to the South China Sea. Since May 2017, the United States has conducted six FONOPs in the region.

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