The South Chinese Sea dispute: Capture the flag on an advanced level

Initially I wanted to avoid taking about another dispute with China. However, since my first blog on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute between China, Japan and as I later found out Taiwan1, China has been pushing buttons in the ASEAN region. After an article I read today about Chinese factories being set ablaze by Vietnamese protesters and people getting killed2, I decided this topic was too relevant not to write about. So here is one more sea dispute with China, Just ‘one’ more.

In order to not open a can of worms I try to keep this blog focused on the dispute between China and Vietnam and whilst I might take a sidestep to a different ASEAN member in order to illustrate my blog further, I will not talk about all the (sea) disputes among ASEAN member states and China. For some of those interesting stories I can refer you to some of my colleagues.

The reason why the Vietnamese protesters decided to set fire to several factories is because they are angry with China placing an oil rig in the territorial waters of Vietnam. Haiyang Shiyou 981, as the oil rig is called, is drilling for oil well within the 200 nautical mile arc surrounding Vietnam’s coastline. This means China is violating the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which China ratified themselves on June 7, 1996

The disputed oil rig CNOOC 981 which is set up within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of Vietnam.

The disputed oil rig CNOOC 981 which is set up within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of Vietnam.

34. Case closed you might think, China is wrong and Vietnam is right. Let’s take a look at the map below though.

China's claim in the South Chinese sea versus the Maritime borders established in UNCLOS which was also ratified by China.

China’s claim in the South Chinese sea versus the Maritime borders established in UNCLOS which was also ratified by China.

This map shows the South China Sea and the part China is claiming versus the parts that according to the UNCLOS belong to the nations of for instance Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. The reason why China is spreading out its sea territory so far from their own coastlines, are the groups of islands that can also be seen on the map. According to Beijing, the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Scarborough Shoal are part of China. The disputed islands allow China to build within parts of the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia5.

There are various reasons for China to stretch its maritime border so far out into the South China Sea, one of them being the natural resources present in the area such as fish and oil reserves under the sea bed6. In terms of fish, China is primarily pursuing the sea turtle which is highly represented around the Spratly Islands even though it is a globally protected animal7. The second reason is that the south Chinese sea is of strategic importance because of the trade routes passing it as well as the fact that Japan proved in WW2 that from the island groups it is possible to attack a variety of areas in South East Asia 8.

Major trade routes passing trough the south Chinese Sea

Some of the major trade routes crossing the disputed area in the south Chinese sea. There is an estimated $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. trade passing trough annually.

The claim from China on the different Islands is highly debatable if not slightly funny due to the many contradictions within their claim. In a way the Senkaku island dispute was based on historical claims of China on the Islands in question. In my opinion it was Japan who had more valid reasons for claiming the island group as well as documentation to back it up.

The dispute in the South China Sea has a lot of similarities to the Senkaku dispute. China claims sovereignty over the groups of islands, shoals and rocks based on historic events. This is where the contradictions start for China. First of all the historical claims China makes about the islands are rejected at large by the UNCLOS which China ratified. Secondly, looking at China’s history it is unlikely that China has been able to practice sovereignty over the islands, especially since past empires have not been able to practice sovereignty even within their own territories. In the past, China has also been really unclear in conflicts with India, Burma and Vietnam about the borders they share, but now that it comes to their maritime borders they all of a sudden have a clear understanding of what their borders are even with documentation to back it up 9.

The increasing pressure China is enforcing in the South Chinese sea has already led to several incidents. Vietnam’s coastguard was repeatedly rammed by a flotilla of around 80 Chinese vessels of the coast of Vietnam. In the fleet of China there were 8 military vessels as well as aircraft supporting the Chinese vessels10. On the same day, The Philippines apprehended a Chinese fishing vessel carrying approximately 500 endangered sea turtles on board with some of them dead. China demanded the sailors and the vessel to be released11.

U.S. Navy ship docked at Seal Beach. The U.S. is abstaining from direct involvement in the sea dispute.

U.S. Navy ship docked at Seal Beach. The U.S. is abstaining from direct involvement in the sea dispute.


The United States is still staying in the background although it condemns the actions taken by China to further its grip on the region. The U.S. also announced that it will keep the important trade routes in the area open in the most peaceful way possible12.

Looking at what China currently is doing we can assume that the validity with which they try to occupy this massive area of South China Sea is non-existent. However the Chinese have been succeeding is almost every step they take at annexing more and more of the Sea area. This implies that the ASEAN members are still not united enough to make a joint stance against the ever hungry Chinese expansionism. The mellow reaction coming from the U.S. is indicating that the countries surrounding the South Chinese Sea cannot fully rely anymore on the policeman of the world stepping in immediately. Hope is not all gone however, since Vietnam is renowned for being a country that does not back up from a fight even though their enemy is much larger. They also have a considerable navy which is able of protecting vital area’s in the sea. According to the UNCLOS China ratified there is no valid basis for China to be out this far from their home shores and whilst they have highly doubt able documentation proving their so called sovereignty in the region, this still is no sufficient ground for them to go in and take over one of the most important slabs of ocean in the world. That China provoked both Vietnam and the Philippines a week after president Obama’s visit to the region is just another sign that they want to show their capabilities in being a force to be reckoned with. In my opinion there are two ways this conflict can go. Either the case is presented at the International court in the Hague which will give its verdict, or the conflict will end up becoming a massive war with much more parties involved than just ASEAN, the U.S. and China. Some say that the increased presence of China in the area is also caused by Russia taking over Crimea. It is believed that this dispute will be China’s Crimea. the issue here is of an entire different dimension, because much more countries would get involved since the trade routes running trough that area are of vital essence for a lot of nations around the world. Only time will tell what will happen in the South China Sea, but it’s definitely a situation which could have disastrous consequences.

  4. Upon ratification

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