What's New :
ITS 2025: Integrated Test Series & Mentorship Program for Prelims and Mains. Get Details

South China Sea Chaos

Published: 4th May, 2020

A United States Navy warship conducted a "freedom of navigation operation" aimed at challenging China's claims in the South China Sea, the second such operation in as many days near disputed islands that the US has accused Beijing of militarizing.


A United States Navy warship conducted a "freedom of navigation operation" aimed at challenging China's claims in the South China Sea, the second such operation in as many days near disputed islands that the US has accused Beijing of militarizing.


  • The move came amid a rise in US-China tensions over the novel coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak after the virus emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
  • The US State Department had earlier said China was taking advantage of the region's focus on the coronavirus pandemic to "coerce its neighbours".
  • Recently, China sought to further advance its territorial claims when it announced that the Paracel and the nearby Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank and their surrounding waters would be administered under two new districts of Sansha city, which China created on nearby Woody Island in 2012.
  • It also announced official Chinese names for 80 islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea, including reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges, 55 of them submerged in water.
  • It also established a "mental-health facility" in Mischief Reef, which has been declared by the international tribunal in The Hague as within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
  • China stakes its claim to the sea on its controversial nine-dash line demarcation; a 2,000 kilometre (1,242 mile) U-shaped dashed line that first appeared in maps of revolutionary China in the 1940s.


Knowing the South China Sea:

  • South China Sea is bounded on the northeast by the Taiwan Strait(by which it is connected to the East China Sea); on the east by Taiwan and the Philippines; on the southeast and south by Borneo, the southern limit of the Gulf of Thailand, and the east coast of the Malay Peninsula; and on the west and north by the Asian mainland
  • Most of its hundreds of small islands, islets and rocks were originally uninhabited. The Paracel and Spratly chains contain the biggest islands. Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal) is a small outcrop in the east.
  • Beijing and most other countries know it as the South China Sea. Hanoi calls it the East Sea and Manila officially refers to it as the West Philippine Sea.

Importance of South China Sea:

  • The South China Sea is a key commercial thoroughfare connecting Asia with Europe and Africa, and its seabed is rich with natural resources. One third of global shipping, or a total of US$3.37 trillion of international trade, passes through the South China Sea.
  • About 80 percent of China’s oil imports arrive via the Strait of Malacca, in Indonesia, and then sail across the South China Sea to reach China.
  • The sea is also believed to contain major reserves of natural resources, such as natural gas and oil.
  • The South China Sea also accounts for 10 percent of the world’s fisheries, making it a key source of food for hundreds of millions of people.
  • The sea is home to some of the world's biggest coral reefs and, with marine life being depleted close to coasts, it is important as a source of fish to feed growing populations.

What is the issue all about?

  • The South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, is subject to several overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
  • There are six players in the complex web of overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea .
  • China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei use differing versions of history to back their assertions of sovereignty.
  • China claims the biggest share, maintaining its right to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, occupying all of the Paracel Islands and nine reefs in the Spratley’s, including Fiery Cross Reef and Johnson South Reef.
  • The conflict has remained unresolved for decades but has emerged as a flashpoint in China-US relations in Asia.
  • It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys - two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.
  • Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.

Over the years, the claimants have seized control of a raft of sea features, including rocks, islands and low-tide elevations.

Who claims what?

  • China claims more than 80 percent, while Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
  • The Philippines asserts ownership of the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal, while Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands.
  • China claims by far the largest portion of territory - an area defined by the "nine-dash line".
  • China‘s “nine-dash line” is a geographical marker used to assert its claim. It stretches as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia.
  • Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a mapdetailing its claims.
  • It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.
  • However, critics say China has not clarified its claims sufficiently - and that the nine-dash line that appears on Chinese maps encompassing almost the entirety of the South China Sea includes no coordinates.
  • It is also not clear whether China claims only land territory within the nine-dash line, or all the territorial waters within the line as well.

What role does the US play in the dispute?

  • The US has wide-ranging security commitments in East Asia, and is allied with several of the countries bordering the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
  • Furthermore, the South China Sea is a vital trade route in the global supply chain, used by American companies who produce goods in the region.
  • The Spratlys, called the Nansha Islands by China, are in the southern portion of the 1.3 million square mile-South China Sea.
  • While several countries have claims on the island chain, the US has long accused China of militarizing the Spratly Islands by deploying anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles to Chinese outposts there.
  • Although the US does not officially align with any of the claimants, it has conducted Freedom of Navigation operations, designed to challenge what Washington considers excessive claims and grant the free passage of commercial ships in its waters.

Regulation of South China Sea:

  • All the claimants in the South China Sea – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – are parties to the two most important legal mechanisms dealing with multilateral disputes:
    • the United Nations Charter (UN Charter)
    • the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  • Under the regimes of these conventions, state parties have the obligation to settle their disputes bypeaceful means, such as negotiation, regional arrangements, international arbitration, or courts/tribunals.
  • Unlike the UN Charter, UNCLOS goes a step further and prescribed detailed methods of solving conflicts at sea for its parties in Chapter XV.
  • In general, the consent of states is placed at the center of all dispute settlement mechanisms.
  • However, UNCLOS particularly opens a chance for a state party individually to bring its conflict with another state before an international court or arbitration when it comes to certain types of disputes.
  • These are called compulsory procedures, entailing binding decisions in section 2 of chapter XV of UNCLOS. When a state signed and ratified the Convention, it is understood that it has agreed with this settlement means in advance.


China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, have been locked for decades in an increasingly tense conflict over mostly barren islands, reefs and atolls and rich fishing waters in the South China Sea. However, the coronavirus pandemic has been a growing source of tension between the world's two largest economies, with both Washington D.C. and Beijing heaping criticism on each others' handling of the outbreak.

Verifying, please be patient.

Enquire Now