The Seoul Forum For International Affairs (SFIA)

Upcoming Events

[Seminar] The Second Seoul Forum ChinaTalk
Date: 2015-01-28  |  Read: 6,642

The 2nd Seoul Forum ChinaTalk

 The South China Sea Disputes: Peace or War?


Presented by LI Mingjiang (Nanyang Technological University)

Coordinated by CHUNG Jae Ho (Seoul National University)


The most common forecast on the South China Sea issue is overall peace and stability, but only in the short term. Beyond that, there is uncertainty if security management is not done properly.



 Among all of the involved parties, China is the largest power and seems to have the most extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. China controls all of the land in the Paracel Islands, occupies 8 to 9 reefs in the Spratly Islands and has claims in the Natuna Islands archipelago (near Singapore and the Strait of Malacca), which is Indonesian. Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also occupy the Spratly Islands with Taiwan occupying the largest land mass in the Spratly Islands (Itu Aba). In the Natuna Islands archipelago Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia also are claimants. This area is important because the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that can be claimed from Natuna can expand to the Spratly Islands, overlapping with China’s 9-dashed-line map. Likewise, there are many other overlapping claims.



There were few problems in the South China Sea before the 1960-70s. About three military clashes were recorded. In the early 1970s, however, war between China and South Vietnam over the Paracels erupted and another incident between these two countries occurred in 1988 over parts of the Spratly Islands. The 1990s saw the Mischief Reef crisis in the Spratly Islands between China and the Philippines as China erected structures on the reef about 210 kms from the Philippines, beginning in 1995.



The Mischief crisis sparked several years of ASEAN negotiations on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In 2002, the DOC was signed, but results have been mixed. It has helped restrain the behavior of all the claimant nations. However, it has been ineffective in both jurisdictional administration and resolving disputes over fishing, oil and tourism. Moreover, in the past decade, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have consolidated their presence in the disputed territorial waters. All of the involved countries except Brunei have erected military garrisons and other installations. China is even building many artificial islands on the reefs that it occupies. Surging nationalism in many countries is another aspect that speaks to the ineffectiveness of the DOC.



Although the DOC has been ineffective in key concerns, it has been instrumental in preserving overall stability. One positive development in the 2000s has been the successful demarcation of the Tonkin Gulf and Sino-Vietnamese cooperation. Also, from 2005 to 2008, China, Vietnam and the Philippines had an agreement to conduct a joint trilateral seismic study. This agreement, however, was not renewed due to domestic opposition in the Philippines after 2008. The successful demarcation of maritime zones between Malaysia and Brunei in 2010 is another positive result of the DOC.



Starting in 2009, a new round of tensions began to arise. One common view pointed to China as the source of the trouble. That was not completely wrong. However, other factors need to be equally considered, one of which was the new claim submission deadline set in 2009 by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS). It ignited a diplomatic row between China and ASEAN members.

In 2010, there was widespread discussion on China labeling the South China Sea one of its “core interests.” At that point, the general Chinese population began to pay more attention to the South China Sea, leading to a contentious 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi. A serious diplomatic confrontation ensued between China and the United States at the ARF, and China also clashed with the Philippines and Vietnam.

The conflict between China and Vietnam intensified in 2011 when Chinese patrol boats cut the cables of the Vietnamese oil exploitation boats. Meanwhile, the Scarborough Shoal became a major flashpoint between China and the Philippines. In retrospect, Philippine may have erred in ordering warships to the shoal to arrest Chinese fishermen. All of the Chinese fishing boats were equipped with satellite devices, and Chinese patrol boats and neighboring Chinese boats were sent to the area, thus causing a standoff. The incident ended with China taking over Scarborough Shoal. In January 2013, the Philippines submitted an appeal to the UN Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The case is ongoing.



Among the many explanations for the new tensions, one view in China is that the United States’ effort to rebalance its strategic interest has led to encouraging ASEAN countries to challenge China. Although this view may be exaggerating the United States’ role, there may be some truth in the Vietnam and Philippines case.

The new deadline set by UNCLCS, Vietnam’s ASEAN chairmanship, and growing maritime economic interests are also credited for the rise of new tensions in this area. Some Vietnamese government documents indicate a strong economic interest in resources in the South China Sea; 30% of Vietnam’s GDP comes from energy exploitation in the South China Sea. Law enforcement activities also contribute to the new tension, particularly in the case of China. Chinese capacity to enforce its claims in the South China Sea has increased dramatically in the past decade, which has perhaps caused some pressure in other countries.



Between 2010 and 2012, diplomatic rhetoric became quite heated. China faced considerable pressure from the United Sates and ASEAN and agreed to sign the implementation guideline of the DOC. But, as noted earlier, the DOC did not lead to much maritime cooperation. As a follow-up to the DOC, China agreed to initiate the Code of Conduct (COC) process.

However, there are many obstacles to the conclusion of the COC, including no policy consensus in China. Officially, China has agreed to start the process, but some Chinese officials are reluctant to conclude the COC any time soon. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the only agency in China in favor of engaging ASEAN on this matter. The Navy and all other maritime law enforcement agencies are strongly against the negotiations and conclusion of the COC. Some critics say that China may be employing a delay tactic.

Geographic coverage is also a problem. The DOC lacks geographical specifics, and this may be a tough issue for the COC because Vietnam will insist on including the Paracel Islands. China is unlikely to agree to this. In the absence of a specific geographic definition, the DOC’s fate can be repeated. Monitoring and arbitration mechanisms are another issue. What should be done if a country violates the agreement? There is serious doubt regarding the effectiveness in restraining the actions of some of the claimant countries.



In the South China Sea disputes, China’s claims are not exactly clear. In terms of the maritime area, their official position is unknown. Also in China, historians, not maritime lawyers, have assumed the lead in the discourse and policy debate, and some historians use loose evidence to support their positions on the South China Sea.

It is also difficult to say that China has a clear approach to the disputes. Furthermore, especially in the past decade (before 2013), coordination among different agencies was not good. Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies (State Oceanic Administration: SOA) initiated assertive action on several occasions between 2009 and 2012. But it has had insufficient and inefficient coordination with the fishery administration, suggesting competing self-interests between the two government agencies. For example, whenever there is a crisis in the South China Sea, both agencies dispatch vessels in an apparent attempt to stake out more leadership in policy making. Nonetheless, the one dominant issue that China must clarify is its claims regarding the 9-dashed line.



The 9-dashed line map drawn by China initially consisted of 11 lines; two lines near the Gulf of Tonkin were later discarded. China has never clarified the precise meaning of the map so there interpretations. Still, government statements clearly indicate that China believes it has rights over all the land in the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Nevertheless, the following issue concerning the definitions of land features and islands remains unclear.

An “island” is a legal term, and territorial waters can be claimed around islands. In contrast, maritime zones cannot be declared around non-island land features. In the 1990s, China published a maritime baseline that connected all of the features in the Paracel Islands in an attempt to claim maritime zones and territorial waters. It is unknown whether China will announce a maritime baseline around the Spratlys using similar methods, but the action toward the Paracels alone raises an important issue.

In the Paracel Islands archipelago, there are only a small number of land masses that can be individually identified as islands. But if a straight baseline surrounding all the land masses is drawn, a fairly large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) can be claimed. If this method is applied to the rest of the South China Sea, it means that China may claim the entire area in the Spratlys as its internal waters as well as a very large EEZ. But the biggest uncertainty is still the 9-dashed line. If China claims the whole 9-dashed line area, it does not need to define the individual islands or features.



The 9-dashed line is even debated within China. Some of the possible interpretations are that it is a demarcation of: 1) territorial water/maritime boundary; 2) historical waters; or 3) historical rights. A fourth interpretation is that the 9-dashed line is a line of islands and other land features, and that UNCLOS should be used to claim maritime areas and exclusive economic zones on such islands and features. More and more Chinese people tend to agree that China should make the fourth claim. However, some policy practices of China in the past decade have limited its options in interpreting the 9-dashed line.



Chinese government statements clarify some aspects of its claim. For example, in May 2009, China responded to Vietnam's and Malaysia-Vietnam's Joint submission to UNCLCS with the statement that reads "China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof." The problem with this statement is the phrase "relevant waters," for it is unclear how China interprets it. Yet, the above position is consistently held by the Chinese government, and is widely known in the international community.

China’s June 28, 2011 statement in response to the United States Senate resolution is also interesting:

The core of the South China Sea problem is the dispute among relevant countries surrounding the South China Sea over the sovereignty of some islands and rocks at the Spratlys and the demarcation of part of the maritime domain in the South China Sea.

Although it may be inferred from this ambiguous statement that China does not want to claim the entire 9-dashed line area, it still cannot be said with certainty.

The following is the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement on the South China Sea, made on February 29, 2012:

The core of the South China Sea dispute is the sovereignty disputes over some Spratlys Islands and reefs and the demarcation of some maritime zones in the South China Sea. It is necessary to point out that no country, including China, makes a sovereignty claim in the whole South China Sea. Some people make random comments on this issue from time to time and we don’t know whether they really do not understand the issue of have ulterior motives. We think it is necessary to make a clarification here.

Again, this statement can be interpreted as China not wanting to intend to claim the entire 9-dashed line area. But specifics are still left in the dark because China has not clarified anything in crystal clear language.



The United States believes that China’s 9-dashed line is illegal. In the past, the United States has taken the lead in multilateral opposition to China’s positions at diplomatic gatherings. The United States has openly challenged China’s policy stance on the South China Sea and has attempted to raise the cost for China in the territorial disputes by providing maritime law enforcement, surveillance and diplomatic encouragement to Vietnam and the Philippines. Yet, there is little that the United States can do to prevent China from pursuing its current stance. For example, when China seized Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, there was nothing that the United State could do to secure a withdrawal. Moreover, Washington has remained very ambiguous on whether or not it will support Vietnam militarily.



Clear solutions are unlikely to appear in the near future for tensions and skirmishes will probably persist. But it seems to be unlikely that China will declare and Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. The reasons are quite simple. First, the South China Sea is an enormous space and even if China declares ADIZ, it won’t be able to enforce it. Secondly, there is frequent military exercise in the South China Sea. Singapore for instance uses the southern part for air force exercises and regular training. If China were to declare ADIZ, it would not be able to deal with all of such activities. In the end, although the possibility of a major clash in the near future is low, military conflict in the South China Sea cannot be ruled out over the long run. Thus, security management should be the focus in handling the South China Sea dispute.

Copyrights and Contact details

  • Seoul Forum
  • ADDRESSB1 Fl., Poongsan Bldg., 23 Chungjeong-ro, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, South Korea, 03737
    TEL. 82-2-779-7383 FAX. 82-2-779-7380 E-Mail.
    Copyright © 2018 The Seoul Forum for International Affairs. All Rights Reserved.

Display page loading image