South China Sea dispute – The Core IAS

South China Sea dispute

What is the dispute?

  • The South China Sea is situated just south of the Chinese mainland and is bordered by the countries of Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The countries have bickered over territorial control in the sea for centuries, but in recent years tensions have soared to new heights.


  • China’s rise as a global power. The South China Sea is one of the most strategically critical maritime areas and China eyes its control to assert more power over the region.
  • In 1947, China issued a map with the so-called “nine-dash line”. The line essentially encircles China’s claimed waters and islands of the South China Sea — as much as 90% of the sea has been claimed by China. The line continued to appear in the official maps even after.
  • In the past few years, the country has also tried to stop other nations from conducting any military or economic operation without its consent, saying the sea falls under its Exclusive Economic Zone.
  • China’s sweeping claims, however, have been widely contested by other countries. In response, China has physically increased the size of islands or created new islands altogether in the sea, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty and seven outposts, respectively. China has militarised Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system.
  • To challenge China’s assertive territorial claims and protect its own political and economic interests, the US has intervened in the matters. It has not only increased its military activity and naval presence in South Asia but also provided weapons and aid to China’s opponents.

Importance of the South China Sea:

  • There are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in deposits under the South China Sea, according to the estimates of the United States Energy Information Agency.
  • The sea is home to rich fishing grounds — a major source of income for millions of people across the region. More than half of the world’s fishing vessels operate in this area.
  • The sea is a crucial trade route. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that over 21% of global trade, amounting to $3.37 trillion, transited through these waters in 2016.

What is the ‘nine-dash line’?

  • The nine-dash line demarcates China’s territorial claims in the sea on Chinese maps. It was initially the “eleven-dash line” but in 1953, the government removed “the portion encompassing the Gulf of Tonkin, simplifying the border to nine dashes.
  • The line runs as far as 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
  • China’s claim on the waters and islands within the boundary is based on its “historical maritime rights”. However, the country has never clearly stated the line coordinates and the line runs many miles beyond what is allowed under the United Nations treaty on maritime territorial issues, which China has signed.
  • Take the example of the Scarborough Shoal, also known as Huangyan Island. While it comes under the Philippines’ EEZ, Beijing claims that the records show “China’s sailors discovered Huangyan Island 2,000 years ago and cite extensive records of visits, mapping expeditions and habitation of the shoal from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) right through to the modern period”. 
  • Similarly, China says it has centuries-old ties with the Paracel and Spratly Island chains as they were once an integral part of the Chinese nation. But Vietnam disputes the claim, saying it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century — and has the documents to prove it.
  • In 2016, after the Philippines took China to an international tribunal pertaining to the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, the tribunal in its ruling largely rejected the nine-dash line and said, “China had broken international law by endangering Philippine ships and damaging the marine environment”.
  • Although the tribunal’s judgement was binding, there was no enforcement mechanism. China boycotted the proceedings, claiming the tribunal had no jurisdiction and that it would ignore any decision.

How can the dispute be resolved?

  • A quick solution to the dispute seems quite impossible, especially after China refused to abide by the international tribunal’s ruling.
  • The ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) — a 10-member regional grouping that comprises Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia — might find a way to tackle the issue.  Due to internal conflicts, the group has largely failed to do so.


  • Therefore, there is a palpable fear that the South China Sea dispute can soon become the next global conflict, with grave consequences. 
  • The failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes by diplomatic means could also undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilising arms buildups.