Disputes Abound in the South China Sea

August 23, 2019

Map of South China Sea

With about $3.4 trillion worth of global trade passing through the South China Sea each year, the area sees a third of the world's maritime trade.

China's economy, in particular, is reliant on access to the South China Sea—80 percent of the country's energy imports and nearly 40 percent of its total trade passes through this contested body of water.

A number of independent states have been involved in disputes regarding island and maritime claims in the region. The list includes Brunei, the People's Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries.

It seems that each drop of water and speck of land in the area is a subject of contested ownership, including the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands and every islet, inlets, reef, and bay in the South China Sea.

Those who lay claim to one spot or another do so for a variety of reasons, including acquisition of fishing rights, the opportunity to exploit crude oil and natural gas resources, and to gain control over strategically important shipping lanes.

The People's Republic of China has been around since 1949, but the country is still eagerly involved in a very literal form of nation-building—they're creating new Chinese land! Starting around 2013, China has been building islands by dumping tons of sand on reefs and rocks in the South China Sea.

These activities, in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, have drawn harsh criticism from the international community and prompted the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other states to initiate freedom of navigation operations in the region.

In 2016, the UN ruled against China's maritime claims but did not decide on ownership of the islands or set any new boundaries.

China’s stubborn claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea have frustrated many countries, all of which have a vested interest in the region's shipping lanes, commercial fishing opportunities, and vast petroleum resources. Surely, tensions will continue, as each party involved works to protect its political, economic, and military interests in the region.

Singapore, South China Sea
Cargo ships entering one of the busiest ports in the world, Singapore.