The South China Sea is a tangle of criss-crossing territorial claims – and a potential theater for future conflicts.
A total of six countries are involved in the territorial disputes, many of which overlap. It’s perhaps best demonstrated with a map:
Image courtesy of southchinasea.org via The China Story. Modified by Curiousmatic.
There are basically three different kinds of claims in the South China Sea:
- Historical. The so-called ox’s tongue line represented by the red dotted line above is claimed by both China and Taiwan, based on historical records showing that Chinese people have extensively fished and settled the region for the last 2,000 years.
- The Law of the Seas. Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei appeal to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states that every nation has exclusive right to all sea-based natural resources within 200 nautical miles (nm) of their borders (1 nautical mile = 1.15 miles).
- Continental shelf. Both Malaysia and Vietnam claim that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical miles beyond the coastline, which would extend their territory to 350 nm.
Why are these nations claiming control?
Part of all these claims are obviously patriotism and national sovereignty, particularly in China’s case.
But beyond that are some very tangible aspects that are reliant on controlling the region: shipping, oil, gas, and fishing.
The South China Sea is home or close to 14 of the world’s 20 busiest shipping ports:
Image courtesy of David Rosenberg via The China Story.
Considering the explosive growth of the South China Sea nations over the last few decades, access to shipping routes has so far led to few disputes.
That’s owed to cooperation in the region, such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which regulates shipping in the area.
More controversial, however, are natural resources.
Because of an unclear legal framework, fishing has caused several diplomatic disputes.
But the major disputes are, unsurprisingly, over oil and gas. The following map shows known oil and gas fields in the disputed areas:
Image courtesy of David Rosenberg via The China Story. Modified by Curiousmatic.
Especially for China, which has published optimistic estimates of these fields’ capacity, these reserves could become important, as inland oil production is slowing down.
What’s going to happen?
In light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, some worry that China will take advantage of its major power status and simply take what it wants. The recent deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam could seem to confirm those fears.
The conflict could also heat up if there’s a breakthrough in commercially exploiting methane hydrates (or “fire ice), an abundant source of energy found on the seafloor globally, including the South China Sea.
Of course, there’s also the possibility of a peaceful solution.
Vietnam and Malaysia have already submitted their claims to the United Nations. However, since they did this without consent from all members of the dispute, negotiations are delayed indefinitely.
A regional solution might be more realistic. All countries in the dispute, except for China, are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has a combined GDP of $2.3 trillion, the world’s fourth largest.
This organization already negotiated the shipping deal with its larger neighbor, and is in negotiations for a wider partnership between China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand – negotiations which could be jeopardized by Chinese aggression.