The South China Sea Dispute For Dummies

I’ve brought this up in conversation with a few friends, only to find that they hadn’t heard about it. So, here is a quick primer on the South China Sea dispute going on right now. This is by no means comprehensive. I’m only covering the basics here.

For further reading, the best explanation I’ve seen is this one given by Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippines.

This is a good summary of the Philippines’ case against China.

Why the US is involved, and the high stakes.

Some of Beijing’s arguments here, here and here.



Disputes in the South China Sea have been going on for decades, but on May 26 (1 week ago) CNN ran a story that released footage of China’s most recent activity. Dredgers have been piling sand on top of submerged islands and reefs to create new, artificial islands that have been equipped with radar facilities, landing strips and more.

These islands have been created right in the middle of the South China Sea, and they are on a scale not seen before in the region. They are also in disputed waters, causing some alarm among the smaller neighboring countries.


9-Dash Line (aka 9-Dotted Line) – A line made in 1947 by the Kuomintang-led Republic of China. The line stretches way down into the South China Sea and runs right up along Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Two years later, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China fled to Taiwan where it remains today. The PRC inherited the ROC’s 9-Dash Line claims when decades later the US, and then the rest of the world, recognized Beijing and not Taipei as the capital of China.

When this line was created, no one made a fuss about it because there were so many other things happening in the region that took higher priority. And, no one was acting or reacting to the claim in any serious way. Thus, it was put on the back burner and remains one of history’s untied loose ends that has come back to bother us.

All of China’s claims to the legitimacy of its island building rest on the legitimacy of this line. They are the only country who recognizes this claim, but their argument is that the world has recognized it by default because no substantive challenges have come up until now. (It was originally an 11-Dash Line but Vietnam got China to negotiate on the Gulf of Tonkin, but made no attempts to challenge the claim of the entire South China Sea.)

I know, that’s more than 9 dashes, but it’s the same area.

UNCLOS: The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – This is an international agreement on the rules of the road…of the sea. The third and latest of which was worked out through the late 1970s and early 80s and took effect in 1994. China is a party to the treaty, the US isn’t but it also is, but let’s leave that out for now. The UN has no means of enforcing any of the rules, so the US Navy and Coast Guard are the de facto and implicit guarantors of this rules-based order, and US ships and companies operate by the rules of the treaty.

Since the dispute here concerns islands, the most relevant part of UNCLOS is Article 121 which states:

1. An island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.

2. Except as provided for in paragraph 3, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory.

3. Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

None of the islands claimed by China meet this definition fully (1 applies to some, 3 applies to none).

In UNCLOS, the following were also defined:

Exlcusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – All countries have exclusive economic rights to the waters within 200 nautical miles of its coast. That distance can be extended to 350 nautical miles if there is a significant continental shelf. All of China’s claims in the South China sea (besides perhaps a few of the Paracels) are beyond that distance, but within the 9-Dash Line. Islands must fit the above description to generate an EEZ.

Territorial Waters – Article 3 of UNCLOS says: “Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention.” A state can establish laws and regulate all sorts of uses of the waters within that distance. Islands must fit the above description to generate territorial waters.

Not in UNCLOS, but worth considering:

Inherent territory 固有领土 – There is a concept in China of “China’s inherent territory.” My understanding of this is that since some areas were discovered by or first administered by or first made use of by the Chinese, they are inherently China. This argument was most recently used in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan. Chinese scholars produced ancient maps and records with the islands as part of the Chinese realm.

There is perhaps a tenuous parallel with the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” where 19th century Americans believed they had a providential mandate to expand across the American continent. You could say Beijing believes it has a mandate to administer the South China Sea and other disputed territories because its mission to rejuvenate the Chinese nation enjoys the Mandate of Heaven.

The problem of course is that if every country made territorial claims based on history, the majority of the Earth would be in constant dispute over borders.

“The Diaoyu Islands Are China’s Inherent Territory.”

The Basic Points of the Dispute

China is building artificial islands which do not generate an EEZ or territorial waters under UNCLOS. They are building them in waters which fall in the EEZ of the Philippines. And they are claiming as territorial waters parts of the sea which are the territorial waters and EEZ of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam under UNCLOS.

China says it has the right to do so because they are operating in Chinese territorial waters according to the 9-Dash Line, and because other nations have reclaimed islands inside the line.

China maintains that they are building the islands for peaceful purposes, not military purposes. However, they are now on record as describing the islands as military zones.

The Philippines have brought litigation against China in international courts, but China has refused to participate, stating that the courts do not have proper jurisdiction.

The US response so far is that the islands are illegitimate. The US Navy flew a spy plane through the airspace of the islands to state that the US does not recognize the islands as Chinese territory. China has formally protested. Chinese state media has repeatedly editorialized that the US is provoking China and that the US should stay out of the situation.

At this point, the dispute between the US and China remains mostly symbolic. The US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, but various security/military agreements with nations in the region. It also has vital economic interests in the region.

Many countries contribute to the security and order of the region’s shipping lanes, but underlying the whole order is US engagement and leadership. China is seen by most to be challenging that order and leadership. Thus, the US must make a show of some kind.


The way it looks to me is that China has gotten itself into a corner, and is using contradictory arguments to justify its actions. It’s hard for me to understand why they would do this, other than being pissed off at the smaller countries who demand that China walk back its claims. That they have seemingly handed the US the high ground in world opinion so shortly after their ball spiking over the AIIB appears to have further aggravated many in Beijing.

On a more conspiratorial note, the Communist Party has long been suspected of engaging in wag the dog type scenarios when faced with crises in the Party or some perceived oncoming economic troubles. There’s really no way to know now if that’s behind any of this.

In any case, keep your eyes on this story.


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