Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea

The Spratly Islands, located in the South China Sea, are known for their abundant fishing areas and natural resources. As early as the 1970s, several countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, began claiming various zones and islands in the region. These competing claims have caused tensions among the claimants, particularly due to China’s sweeping sovereignty claims over the sea and its estimated untapped reserves of 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil.

China does not acknowledge the authority of the court and rejects the establishment of the tribunal as outlined in the treaty, despite being a signatory to it. The ruling, which favored the Philippines’ claim against China under UNCLOS, was issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July 2016. The United States argues that claimant countries are not obligated to notify other claimants of military activities under UNCLOS, which guarantees freedom of navigation in EEZs. China, on the other hand, asserts that foreign militaries cannot engage in intelligence-gathering operations, such as reconnaissance flights, within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in accordance with international law.

China has stationed a radar system, cruise missiles, and fighter jets in Woody Island. China has established twenty-seven outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has built ports, military installations, and airstrips. China has expanded the size of islands or formed new islands entirely by depositing sand onto existing reefs, as evidenced by satellite images in recent times.

In order to safeguard its political, security, and economic interests, the United States has undertaken FONOPs and strengthened its backing for Southeast Asian allies, thereby confronting China’s forceful territorial assertions and efforts to reclaim land in the region. In response to China’s assertive presence in the contested area, Japan has provided military vessels and equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam, aiming to enhance their maritime security capabilities and discourage Chinese aggression.

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The United States, which has significant interests in safeguarding freedom of navigation and protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs), has shown support for a binding code of conduct and other measures to build trust. China’s assertions of control over SLOCs pose a threat to crucial maritime routes that enable trade and the transit of naval forces.

The United States has played a role in preventing the escalation of military conflicts resulting from territorial disputes. The United States’ defense treaty with Manila could draw it into a potential conflict between China and the Philippines, which arises from lucrative fishing grounds and substantial natural gas deposits in the disputed territory. The failure of Southeast Asian and Chinese leaders to resolve disputes through diplomatic means could also encourage destabilizing arms buildups and undermine international laws governing maritime disputes.

China persists in constructing military and industrial bases on man-made islands located in contested waters. Despite recent easing of tensions between China and the Philippines as well as Vietnam, China escalated its military presence in the South China Sea through a sequence of naval maneuvers and exercises during March and April 2018.

Since his visit to Southeast Asia in November 2017, President Donald J. Trump emphasized the importance of ensuring open and unrestricted access to the South China Sea by conducting six Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). In recent years, the United States has also increased its naval presence and military activity in the region, highlighting the significance of operations such as freedom of navigation.

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