East Asian Summit
South China Sea Dispute
Home to vast reserves of crude oil, natural gas, and shipping lanes that carry nearly half
of all world trade and more than three quarters of the world’s energy supplies, the South China
Sea is both vitally important to the nations of East Asia and the world not only for economic
reasons but strategically as well. There are nine nations which currently have claims to various
parts of the South China Sea, with all currently engaged in multiple independent disputes with
neighbors over maritime boundaries and islands in the region. Although ocean boundaries are
normally defined according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
which was negotiated in 1982 and ratified by 160+ nations, the unique geography of the South
China Sea has resulted in numerous overlapping claims both in compliance with the convention
and those which exceed it. According to the convention, states have the right to claim 12 nautical
miles of territorial waters from their coast and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending out
to 200 nautical miles where the nation has sole exploitation rights to resources. Under this
definition a large portion of the South China Sea would be considered international waters and
not claimed by any nation, but attempts have been made by numerous nations to claim territory
through the seizure and even creation of islands in these waters.
Major Territorial Disputes
The largest claim to the South China Sea is currently that of the People’s Republic of
China who since the 1940’s has advanced the informal nine-dash line for its territorial claims
which overlaps the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of seven other nations and
essentially represents a claim to the entire sea. Numerous nations have also made claims to the
uninhabited Paracel and Spratly islands which have been controlled by nearly a dozen different
nations over the past few centuries. In an attempt to legitimize claims to the islands, several
militaries have dispatched forces to the island chains and have even begun to establish permanent
presences either through occupation of islands, offshore installations, or even the creation of
artificial islands in the case of the PRC which has created what is described as a ‘great wall of
sand’ in the South China Sea through land reclamation. This growing arms race in the South
China Sea has raised concerns in the international community as commercial operations continue
to flourish in the region while military vessels and aircraft buildup, already having resulted in
incidents between these forces and the many ships and aircraft navigating the South China Sea
every day. Some of the most notable incidents have been the collision of a Chinese F-8 fighter
and a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane near Hainan Island, the harassment of the USNS Cowpens
by Chinese vessels, and the movement of a Chinese oil rig through the Vietnamese exclusive
economic zone just last year. Historically, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of
Vietnam have clashed in the 1970’s and 1980’s over the various islands in the South China Sea
in conflicts which cost more than a hundred sailors lives. Although the region has not seen any
major military conflict over the territorial claims to the sea, the buildup of naval forces is
concerning as tensions continue to build over the economic exploitation and strategic positioning
by the parties involved in the South China Sea which pose a grave threat to international trade
and security if they were ever to result in armed conflict.
Questions to Consider:
1) Does your nation currently have claims in the South China Sea, or does it have a stake in
allies or trade partner’s claims?
2) Is your nations claim in compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or
what reasoning does your nation use to justify its maritime claims?
3) How can the various disputes in the South China Sea be resolved to best benefit the
nations in East Asia and the international community?
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