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The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. An estimated US $5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually and many non-claimant states want the South China Sea to remain international waters. To promote this, several states, including the United States, conduct "freedom of navigation" operations.
The disputes include the islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. There are further disputes, including the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands, which many do not regard as part of the South China Sea. Claimant states are interested in retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas, the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.
In July 2016, an arbitration tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled against the PRC's maritime claims in Philippines v. China. The People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) stated that they did not recognise the tribunal and insisted that the matter should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with other claimants. However, the tribunal did not rule on the ownership of the islands or delimit maritime boundaries.
|Area of dispute|
|The nine-dash line||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Sea area north of Borneo||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|South China Sea islands||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Sea area north of the Natuna Islands||✔||✔||✔|
|Sea area west of Palawan and Luzon||✔||✔||✔|
The disputes involve both maritime boundaries and islands. There are several disputes, each of which involves a different collection of countries:
The area is said to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits; however, the estimates are highly varied. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People's Republic of China estimated that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil, whereas the oil rich country of Kuwait has 13 billion tons. In the years following the announcement by the PRC ministry, the claims regarding the South China Sea islands intensified. However, other sources claim that the proven reserves of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)'s profile of the South China Sea region, a US Geological Survey estimate puts the region's discovered and undiscovered oil reserves at 11 billion barrels, as opposed to a PRC figure of 125 billion barrels. The same EIA report also points to the wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 190 trillion cubic feet to 500 trillion cubic feet, likely located in the contested Reed Bank".
The South China Sea is dubbed by the PRC as the "second Persian Sea." The state-owned China Offshore Exploration Corp. planned to spend 200 billion RMB (US$30 billion) in the next 20 years to exploit oil in the region, with the estimated production of 25 million metric tons of crude oil and natural gas per annum, at a depth of 2000 meters within the next five years.
The Philippines began exploring the areas west of Palawan for oil in 1970. Exploration in the area began in Reed Bank/Tablemount. In 1976, gas was discovered following the drilling of a well. However, the PRC's complaints halted the exploration.
On 27 March 1984, the first Philippine oil company discovered an oil field off Palawan, which is an island province bordering the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. These oil fields supply 15% of annual oil consumption in the Philippines.
The nine-dash line was originally an "eleven-dashed-line," first indicated by the then Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1947, for its claims to the South China Sea. After, the Communist Party of China took over mainland China and formed the People's Republic of China in 1949. The line was adopted and revised to nine dashes/dots as endorsed by Zhou Enlai.
The legacy of the nine-dash line is viewed by some PRC government officials, and by the PRC military, as providing historical support for their claims to the South China Sea.
In the 1970s, however, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory. On 11 June 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the north-western part of the Spratly Islands (referred to therein as the Kalayaan Island Group) as Philippine territory.
The once abundant fishing opportunities within the region are another motivation for claims. In 2012, the South China Sea was believed to have accounted for 12% of world fishing catches worth $21.8 billion. There have been many clashes in the Philippines with foreign fishing vessels (including those of the PRC) in disputed areas. According to some commentators, the PRC believes that the value in fishing and oil from the sea has risen to a trillion dollars.
The area is also one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. In the 1980s, at least 270 merchant ships used the route[clarification needed] each day. Currently[timeframe?], more than half the tonnage of the world's crude oil transported by sea passes through the South China Sea, a figure rising steadily with the growth of the PRC consumption of oil. This traffic is three times greater than that passing through the Suez Canal and five times more than the Panama Canal.
Since 1996, Vietnam and the Philippines, and to a lesser degree Malaysia and Brunei, have asserted claims within the area covered by the Chinese (PRC & ROC) nine-dotted line.
Since 1974, when PRC troops confronted and expelled Vietnamese troops, most of the Paracel Islands have been occupied by the PRC, and all have been under PRC control.
Similarly, although there have been a small number of notable changes in influence or occupation, the occupation and/or control of most parts of the Spratly Islands has not changed significantly since the mid 1990s - see List of maritime features in the Spratly Islands for details. Vietnamese troops control the greatest number of islands, reefs, etc. (approx 29.) Eight islands are controlled by the Philippines, five by Malaysia, one by Taiwan, and all of those mentioned have various degrees of "control" over other features. Although the Paracels are completely under PRC control, the PRC has control of only five "rocks" naturally above water at high tide. The significance of this situation has changed dramatically since 2014 whence the PRC embarked on a program of land reclamation - see Great wall of sand and List of maritime features in the Spratly Islands for details.
In 2012 the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam, while expressing concern over rising tension in the area, said that 50 per cent of its trade passes through the area and called for peaceful resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law.
On 17 March 2016, in accordance with Memorandum Circular No. 94 s. 2016, President Aquino created the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, to secure the State's sovereignty and national territory and preserve marine wealth in its waters and exclusive economic zone, reserving use and enjoyment of the West Philippine Sea exclusively for Filipino citizens.
On 20 July 2011, the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to a set of preliminary guidelines which would help resolve the dispute.[which?] The agreement was described by the PRC's assistant foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, as "an important milestone document for cooperation among China and ASEAN countries". Some of the early drafts acknowledged aspects such as "marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and combating transnational crime", although the issue of oil and natural gas drilling remains unresolved.
On 22 July 2011, the INS Airavat, an Indian amphibious assault vessel on a friendly visit to Vietnam, was reportedly contacted 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the disputed South China Sea by a party identifying itself as the PLA Navy and stating that the ship was entering PRC waters. A spokesperson for the Indian Navy explained that as no ship or aircraft was visible, the INS Airavat proceeded on her onward journey as scheduled. The Indian Navy further clarified that "[t]here was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat. India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all."
In September 2011, shortly after the PRC and Vietnam signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea, India's state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said that its overseas investment arm, ONGC Videsh Limited, had signed a three-year agreement with PetroVietnam for developing long-term co-operation in the oil sector, and that it had accepted Vietnam's offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea. In response, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, without referring to India by name, stated:
"China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China's stand is based on historical facts and international law. China's sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long. On the basis of this China is ready to engage in peaceful negotiations and friendly consultations to peacefully solve the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights so as to positively contribute to peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea area. We hope that the relevant countries respect China's position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue. We hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve the bilateral disputes through bilateral channels. As for oil and gas exploration activities, our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China's jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in South China Sea dispute."
An Indian foreign ministry spokesman responded, "The Chinese had concerns, but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us and [we] have conveyed this to the Chinese." The Indo-Vietnamese deal was also denounced by the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times.
In Spring 2010, PRC officials reportedly communicated to US officials that the South China Sea was "an area of 'core interest' that is as non-negotiable" and on par with Taiwan and Tibet on the national agenda. However, Beijing appears to have backed away from that assertion in 2011.
In October 2011, the PRC's Global Times newspaper, published by the Communist Party People's Daily group, orialised on South China Sea territorial disputes under the banner "Don't take peaceful approach for granted". The article referenced recent[when?] incidents involving the Philippines and South Korea detaining PRC fishing boats in the region. "If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved." Responding to questions about whether this reflected official policy, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated the country's commitment "to resolving the maritime dispute through peaceful means."
In July 2014, Professor Alan Dupont of the University of New South Wales was reported as saying that the Chinese government appeared to be directing its fishing fleet into disputed waters as a matter of policy.
Vietnam and Japan reached an agreement early in 1978 on the development of oil in the South China Sea. By 2012 Vietnam had concluded some 60 oil and gas exploration and production contracts with various foreign companies. In 1986, the "White Tiger" oil field in the South China Sea came into operation, producing over 2,000 tons of crude oil per year, followed by "The Bear" and "Dragon" oil fields. Offshore exploration activities in 2011 increased Vietnam's proven oil reserves to be the third largest in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the country is a net importer of oil products. In 2009 petroleum accounted for 14 percent of Vietnamese government income, down from 24 percent in 2004.
China's first independently designed and constructed oil drilling platform in the South China Sea is the Ocean Oil 981 (海洋石油981). The major shareholders are J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (19%), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (14%), T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and affiliates (6%), and BlackRock, Inc. (5%). It began operation on 9 May 2012 in the South China Sea, 320 kilometres (200 mi) southeast of Hong Kong, at a depth of 1,500 m and employing 160 people. On 2 May 2014 the platform was moved near to the Paracel Islands, a move Vietnam stated violated their territorial claims. Chinese officials said it was legal, stating the area lies in waters surrounding the Paracel Islands which China occupies and militarily controls.
Prior to the dispute around the sea areas involved, fishermen from involved countries tended to enter each other's controlled islands and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) leading to conflicts with the authorities that controlled the areas as they were unaware of the exact borders. As well, due to the depletion of the fishing resources in their maritime areas they were forced to fish in the neighbouring countries' areas.
In the spring of 2014, China and Vietnam clashed again over China's Haiyang Shiyou oil rig in Vietnam's EEZ. The incident left seventeen Vietnamese injured and damaged both China's and Vietnam's ships.
Although Indonesia is not part of claims in the South China Sea dispute, after Joko Widodo became President of the country in 2014, he instituted a policy in 2015 that, if any foreign fishermen were caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, their vessels would be destroyed. The president wanted to make maritime resources, especially fisheries, a key component of his administration's economic policy. Since the policy's initiation, fishing vessels drawing from many neighbouring countries were destroyed by Indonesian authorities. On 21 May 2015, around 41 fishing vessels from China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines were destroyed. On 19 March 2016, the China Coast Guard prevented the detention of Chinese fishermen by Indonesian authorities after Chinese fishermen were caught fishing near the waters around Natuna, leading to a protest by Indonesian authorities; the Chinese ambassador was subsequently summonsed as China had considered the areas to be "Chinese traditional fishing grounds". Further Indonesian campaigns against foreign fishermen resulted in the destruction of 23 fishing boats from Malaysia and Vietnam on 5 April 2016.
Until late 2016, most fishing vessels blown up by Indonesian authorities were Vietnamese fishing vessels. Although Indonesian authorities increased their patrols to detect foreign fishing vessels, the areas in the South China Sea had already become known for Indonesian pirates, with frequent attacks on Malaysian, Singaporean and Vietnamese vessels as well as leading to hijacking such as the MT Orkim Harmony and MT Zafirah hijacking incidents. The continuing war against foreign fishermen by Indonesia led to protests by Vietnam in late 2016, when a Vietnamese fisherman was killed after being shot by Indonesian authorities. Beside that, Filipino pirates of Moro Pirates from the Sulu Sea also reaching South China Sea when a Vietnamese fisherman was killed by Filipino pirates in late 2015.
The Shangri-La Dialogue serves as the "Track One" exchange forum on security issues surrounding the Asia-Pacific region. The South China Sea territorial disputes has dominated proceedings at the conference in recent years. The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is the "Track Two" forum for dialogue on security issues.
In February 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama initiated the US-ASEAN Summit at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California for closer engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea were a major topic, but its joint statement, the "Sunnylands Declaration", did not name the South China Sea, instead calling for "respect of each nation's sovereignty and for international law". Analysts believe it indicates divisions within the group on how to respond to China's maritime strategy.
The vast majority of international legal experts have concluded that China's claims based on historical claims are invalid. Many ambiguities also arise from the notion of historical claims as a basis for claiming sovereignty; China's position is essentially ambiguous.
The position of China on its maritime claims based on UNCLOS and history has been ambiguous, particularly with the nine dash line map. For example, in its notes verbales in 2011, the first phrase stated that China has undisputed sovereignty over the islands and the adjacent waters, suggesting China is claiming sovereignty over its territorial waters, a position consistent with UNCLOS. However, the second phrase in its notes verbales stated that China enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters along with the seabed and subsoil contained in this region, suggesting that China is claiming sovereignty over all of the maritime space (includes all the geographic features and the waters within the nine dash line). The third phrase indicates support for basing their claims on historical basis as well. Recently in its notes verbales in 2011, China has explicitly stated that it claims the territorial waters and all of the islands in which each island has its own exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. A major problem with this claim is that it fails to distinguish between geographic features considered as "islands" or "rocks" under UNCLOS.
Japanese scholar Taoka Shunji criticised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for trying to falsely portray China as a threat to Japan and that China was invading neighbours such as the Philippines. He pointed out that the Spratly Islands were not part of the Philippines when the US acquired the Philippines from Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1898 and that Japanese-ruled Taiwan itself had annexed the Spratly Islands in 1938 in a move that was never challenged by the US-ruled Philippines, which never asserted that it was their territory. He also pointed out that other countries did not need to do full land reclamation since they already controlled islands and that the reason China engaged in extensive land reclamation is because they needed it to build airfields since China only has control over reefs.
Japan has no claims in the South China Sea, but argues against its militarization. On 13 September, 2018 a Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine took part in an antisubmarine drill in the South China Sea for the first time in its history. The submarine Kuroshio, the helicopter carrier Kaga and two other destroyers, the Inazuma and Suzutsuki, took part in warfare exercise. The exercise was conducted away from the island bases China has been building to push its claims in the strategic sea. However, it could still anger Beijing because submarines represent a greater potential menace to shipping than surface vessels. This drill signals Tokyo’s intention to keep in check Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the area. 
Cambodia has backed China over the dispute in ASEAN meetings, preventing consensus over unified ASEAN action. Anti-Vietnamese sentiment due to Vietnam's conquest of previously Cambodian lands, giving the Vietnamese a privileged status and encouragement of Vietnamese settlers in Cambodia during French colonial rule, and the occupation of Cambodia after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge has led to anti-Vietnamese feelings against ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia and against Vietnam, and in turn has led to pro-China sentiment among the Cambodian government and the Cambodian opposition, including in the South China Sea.
The sweeping maritime claims of gas and oil rich territory maintained and disputed by Australia against the tiny country of East Timor and flouting of international law have been compared to the situation in the South China Sea, causing the East Timorese government to deprecate China's claims and stance.
Since early in the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia has repeatedly asserted its position as a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute, and often positioned itself as an "honest broker". However, parts of China's unilaterally claimed nine-dash line overlap Indonesia's exclusive economic zone near the Natuna islands. Although China has acknowledged Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna islands, the PRC has argued that the waters around the Natuna islands are Chinese "traditional fishing grounds". Indonesia quickly dismissed China's claim, asserting that China's nine-dash line claim over parts of the Natuna islands has no legal basis. In November 2015, Indonesia's security chief Luhut Panjaitan said Indonesia could take China before an international court. Indonesia filed a comment with the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding China's claim in the case of Philippines v. China.
Chinese fishing vessels – often escorted by Chinese coastguard ships – have repeatedly been reported to have breached Indonesian waters near the Natuna islands. On 19 March 2016, for example, Indonesian authorities tried to capture a Chinese trawler accused of illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, and arrested the Chinese crew. They were prevented from towing the boat to harbour by a Chinese coast guard vessel which reportedly "rammed" the trawler in Indonesian waters. "To prevent anything else occurring, the Indonesian authorities let go of the Chinese boat and then left toward Natuna, still with eight fishermen and the captain on board," said Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry. Indonesia still has the Chinese crew in custody. On March 21, 2016, minister for fisheries and maritime affairs Susi Pudjiastuti summoned the Chinese ambassador, Xie Feng, and discussed this matter. Indonesia insists that they have the right to prosecute the Chinese trawler crew, despite Beijing's demand to release their eight fishermen. Arif Havas Oegroseno, the government official of maritime security, said that the Chinese claim of "traditional fishing grounds" was not recognised under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This incident prompted security minister Luhut Pandjaitan to deploy more troops and patrol boats, and to strengthen the Ranai naval base in the area.
Following the clashes, on 23 June 2016, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the Natuna islands on a warship to demonstrate Indonesia's authority. He led a high-level delegation, which included the Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) and state ministers. Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan said it was meant to send a "clear message" that Indonesia was "very serious in its effort to protect its sovereignty".
Following the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on 12 July 2016, Indonesia called on all parties involved in the territorial dispute to exercise self-restraint and to respect applicable international laws.
Indonesia challenged the Chinese nine-dash historical claim by arguing that if the historical claims can be used on presenting the territorial naval claims, Indonesia might also use its historical claims on the South China Sea by referring to the ancient influence of the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires.
Singapore has reiterated that it is not a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute and has offered to play a neutral role in being a constructive conduit for dialogue among the claimant states. However, Singapore hopes that China will obey international laws.
The United States and China are currently in disagreement over the South China Sea. This disagreement is exacerbated by the fact that the US is not a member of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Nevertheless, the US has stood by its manoeuvres, claiming that "peaceful surveillance activities and other military activities without permission in a country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)," is allowed under the convention. Additionally, a South China Sea free to access is in the US's economic and geopolitical interests. In relation to the dispute, Hillary Clinton, then United States Secretary of State, voiced her support for fair access by reiterating that freedom of navigation and respect for international law is a matter of national interest to the United States. Her comments were countered by China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as "in effect an attack on China," who warned the United States against making the South China Sea an international issue or multilateral issue.
Clinton testified in support of congressional approval of the Law of the Sea Convention, which would strengthen U.S. ability to support countries that oppose Chinese claims to certain islands in the area. On 29 May 2012, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern over this development, stating that "non-claimant Association of South East Asian Nations countries and countries outside the region have adopted a position of not getting involved into territorial disputes." In July 2012, the United States Senate passed resolution 524, initially sponsored by Senator John Kerry, stating (among other things) the United States' strong support for the 2002 declaration of conduct of parties in the South China Sea, reaffirms the United States' commitment to assist the nations of Southeast Asia to remain strong and independent, and supports enhanced operations by the United States armed forces in the Western Pacific.
In 2014, the United States responded to China's claims over the fishing grounds of other nations by saying that "China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims." USN CNO Jonathan Greenert then pledged American support to the Philippines in its territorial conflicts with the PRC. The Chinese Foreign Ministry asked the United States to maintain a neutral position on the issue. In 2014 and 2015, the United States continued freedom of navigation operations, including in the South China Sea. Sources closer to the Pentagon have also said that the US administration is planning to deploy some more naval assets within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. In response to this announcement, Beijing issued a strict warning and said that she would not allow any country to violate China's territorial waters in the name of "Freedom of Navigation". In May 2015, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned China to halt its rapid island-building. On 27 October 2015, the US destroyer USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of reclaimed land in the Subi Reef as the first in a series of "Freedom of Navigation Operations". This is the first time since 2012 that the US has directly challenged China's claims of the island's territorial limit. On 8–9 November 2015, two US B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the area of the Spratly Islands and were contacted by Chinese ground controllers but continued their mission undeterred.
The United States itself has not signed UNCLOS, but has accepted all but Part XI as customary international law.
In response to Rex Tillerson's comments on blocking access to man-made islands in the South China Sea, the Communist Party-controlled Global Times warned of a "large-scale war" between the U.S. and China, saying: "Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish."
For example, China may explicitly refer to the South China Sea as a core interest; in 2010 Beijing hinted this was the case but subsequently backed away from the assertion.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters today in Beijing that China "adheres to the strategy of peaceful development. … Sowing discord and hostility will only complicate" the issue, Jiang said.
Vietnamese fishermen appear to be more desperate to source for seafood and are conducting illegal fishing activities in Malaysian waters through deceit. It is understood the appetite for fish is growing in the Asian region, coupled with shrinking stocks, and this is driving fishermen further and further from their shores to source for supply. Vietnamese fishermen are forced to look elsewhere for fish due to heavy pollution of its waters by a Taiwanese steel plant operating in Vietnam under a joint venture with the Vietnamese Government seen as a major scandal.
The ministry's spokesman Le Hai Binh made the statement at a press conference on Thursday, regarding the incident on 21 October when an Indonesia’s naval ship chased and shot at two Vietnamese fishing boats, injuring three of 13 fishermen on board. One succumbed to serious injuries later.
Taipei has demanded that Manila issue an apology, punish those responsible, and compensate the victims by May 15 or the Taiwanese government will place a ban on the entry of any new Filipino workers to the country.
Earlier Phan Huy Hoang, chairman of Quang Ngai Association of Fisheries, said the fishermen told him that Philippine bandits might be involved in the case. For sure, they are foreign attackers, but their nationality is not known.
A local fishery association said the murderers were Philippine.