What’s the Deal With the Squabble in the South China Sea?

Note: this blog post is also featured in the June 11th publication of the History News Network (HNN), found here

Hello All!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that talks about hotly contested rocks.  In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the recent kerfuffles in the South China Sea between five different Asian countries over certain groups of barely exposed islands.  We’ll take a look at the history of country relations, international maritime laws, and previous claims over the nautical territory and build a general understanding on the issue.  Sweet.

The Current

China and the Philippines aren’t exactly shoal mates

In April, a Filipino Naval vessel stopped small fishing boats in the South China Sea at the Scarborough Shoal that were hauling illegal clams, corals, and sharks.  The fishermen, who were from China, had breached the Philippines’ claimed territory in the South China Sea (Civilian Chinese boats were called in to block any arrests or confrontation).  This was the highest profile incident to occur in this decades-long dispute between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei who all have overlapping claims to the nautical territory (see map).

As you can see from the map, the Scarborough Shoal, a ring of mostly submerged rocks, is claimed by both China and the Philippines.  More than a month into the standoff and the air between the two countries remains as tense as ever, while the U.S. and UN watch as concerned bystanders (for now).  But why?  Why are the territories in this waterway so difficult to define?

Scattered Spratly Isles Shared Simultaneously

As with most territorial disputes, this one’s about resources, specifically: oil, gas, and fish.  Potential prospects of oil and natural gas deposits at Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and Reed Bank have increased the value of the territory in the South China Sea, hence China’s (and the other country’s and oil company’s) increased reach and interests of the area.  After decades of overfishing, valuable fish stocks also lie within this region and are protected from overfishing under international and inter-regional laws.  For a region dependent on fish for their diet, this resource is as sought after as the oil.

To make matters more complicated, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is under duress from China.  China has required any country’s naval vessels to notify them ahead of time before passing through (much to the chagrin of the U.S. Navy).  The threatening of the freedom of navigation of the waterway is a worry for transport as $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea annually and is also a huge interest for the U.S. who has been the prime peacekeeper and ensurer of open seas in the area since WW2.

China: keeping kids off Filipino bananas

The standoff between China and the Philippines has been sharp, with a May article on China’s People’s Daily Website warning the Filipino Government not to escalate tensions and a stoppage of banana imports from the Philippines to China.  The multinational squabble has received close attention by many governments because of deep geopolitical implications.

Many foreign policy analysts see China’s aggression into the South China Sea as a counter to the United States’ military “shift to Asia” and others see a scramble for funds by Chinese government agencies as the reason behind China’s aggressive stance.  A confrontation between China and the Philippines would likely bring military intervention, so the U.S. is watching closely, but keen to avoid taking sides (though the Americans are connected through a treaty with defending the Philippines).

So, what seems like an isolated incident of a naval vessel shooing away some poachers is actually the latest flare up in a long-standing, seemingly intractable dispute over territory and access to resources that has the world watching closely. Let’s take a look at the historical developments of the foreign affairs and put some perspective into this interesting and poignant issue.

Historical Claims of the South China Sea

China frequently contends that it has historical claims to the disputed territory: “Firstly, Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) is Chinese territory since ancient times,” recently quipped Huang Shanchun, a political commissar of Guangdong military region.

Emperor Ch’eng Tsu sure had his sea legs (not pictured)

A good place to start in looking at whether China actually holds legitimate claims to the disputed territories within the South China Sea is the Ming Dynasty, in the Chinese Empire’s Middle Kingdom.  During 1405-1433, the Yung Lo Emperor Ch’eng Tsu sent out seven separate maritime missions in South East Asia and to the Indian Ocean.  These large-scale operations included large fleets of 60 ships, tens of thousands of officers, and a mission to explore, describe, claim, and map the waterways and coasts.  By 1424, China had become the eminent sea power of the region, but subsequent Emperors decided to focus on land conquests, abandoning their their focus on the sea.

These explorations yielded hundreds of documents and maps, including maps of the South China Sea.  Importantly, none of the documents from these expeditions mention the Scarborough Shoal or the Spratly Islands (apart from saying to avoid the rocks, which were, and still are, a navigation hazard).  The Paracel Islands, a disputed rock formation between Vietnam and China, was mentioned as “stony reefs”, but not claimed as Chinese.  Here are the documents that would be the “historical evidence” for China’s claim, but they show little, if any proof that China actually claimed the territory (or wanted to claim the territory).

Scarborough Shoal: Nobody’s rocks for centuries

In 1840, as the British Empire expanded to the Orient, the British Navy charted the Spratly Islands, but made no claim to the islands; they wanted to improve navigation and so mapped the outcropping to make sure their ships avoided the rocks.  Pirates, looking for refuges and safe havens, were the only mariners to actually use the rocks until the 20th Century.  When the knowledge and ability to extract oil and minerals from below reefs and shallow sea beds was discovered and developed, the area no longer was just a hazard to avoid and led to the present dispute.

So for centuries, the peoples around the South China Sea have known about these islands and reefs but made no claim to them.  Everyone who had come across them considered them to be hazardous to navigation, uninhabitable and seemingly worthless, until resources that could be extracted were discovered.  It is possible that some Chinese documentation from pre-1900 claiming the territory exists, but if it does, it has yet to be produced (this issue would probably be closer to resolution if it ever was made public).

Geopolitical History

Several factors make this issue not just a local problem:

  1. The potential of a U.S. – China conflict if China and the Philippines clash
  2. The involvement of the U.S. in keeping open freedom of navigation
  3. The breach of the international laws of the sea have implications for those laws and the standards for non-compliance
  4. The breach of the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea

1. How could the U.S. be involved in a conflict way out there, anyways?   If some sort of military action occurred between China and the Philippines, the U.S. would be obligated to come to the defense of Manila because of a long standing agreement between the two countries.

the brutal Philippine campaign forged the American-Filipino relationship, even though President McKinley couldn’t find them on the map

The U.S. has a long (and troubled) relationship with the Philippine archipelago.  Beginning with the Spanish-American War, the Americans helped the revolutionary Emiliano Aguinaldo upend the Spanish colonizers only to attempt to keep the Philippines under American jurisdiction afterwards.  This resulted in a bloody 3.5 years of conflict (4,374 American soldiers were killed).  The Philippines eventually was controlled as an American protectorate and an important outpost for the American military, but with the condition that the Philippines would be granted independence in 1941 (this was delayed until 1946, due to the Second World War).

American and Filipino soldiers fought bravely against the Japanese landing in February 1942 and in expelling them from the islands in 1944.  President Roosevelt formed a close relationship with then Filipino President Manuel Quezon and included him in his Pacific War Council.  Roosevelt knew how important the Philippines were not only in combating the Japanese, but in promoting his vision of the post-war world where the U.S. and its allies would combine as a United Nations to promote peace and resolve global conflicts.

In continuing to promote the U.S.-Philippines relationship in the context of Roosevelt’s vision and the United Nations, both countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951.  the treaty, based on the title, is pretty self-explanatory: both countries agreed to come to the defense of the other if any conflict developed.  So, the U.S. under the obligations of the treaty, would come to the aid of the Philippines if China (a military Goliath to a Filipino David) should attack the Philippines over the the territory.

2. This background provides some evidence as to the second bullet and the U.S.’s goals in keeping the peace and ensuring freedom of the seas.  Ever since its naval expansion in the early 20th Century and its dominance since WW2, the U.S. has held a large naval presence (some say domineering) in the Pacific. This prominence means that American pressure will increase if waterways or freedom of navigation is restricted.

Team America: World Naval Police?

3.  On the third bullet, I am referring specifically to the United Nations Convention on the Law and the Sea (UNCLOS) held between 1972 and 1982 with 160 countries participating, which updated and defined many rules on how nations utilize and share the oceans.  The convention defined territorial seas, international navigation, exclusive economic zones, piracy, international law enforcement, and many other sea-faring provisions.

The UNCLOS was a more comprehensive and formal treaty than the previous “Cannon Shot Rule” from the 17th Century which established a country’s territory into the sea based on the distance of a cannon shot, and anything beyond this was international or “free” water (not to be claimed).  In 1945, President Truman established the U.S.’s territory into the sea to the extent of the continental shelf while other countries established a 12 mile territorial claim and some a 200 mile barrier.  Further into the 20th Century, many island countries found resources on small islands or islets in between the various parts of their archipelagos and wrote up plans to be able to control that territory.  The UNCLOS in 1982 was the third convention, but the first where an agreed upon treaty was passed making rules of the sea nearly universal.

A couple of provisions directly from UNCLOS should be discussed here as they pertain to the current situation:

  • Within a 12 nautical mile limit, States are in principle free to enforce any law, regulate any use and exploit any resource.  This is known as the territorial sea of the coastal state.  The Convention retains for naval and merchant ships the right of “innocent passage” through the territorial seas of a coastal State.
  • Transit passage retains the international status of the straits and gives the naval powers the right to unimpeded navigation and overflight.  In all matters other than such transient navigation, straits are to be considered part of the territorial sea of the coastal State.
  • The establishment of the Economic Exclusivity Zone (EEZ) recognizes the right of coastal States to jurisdiction over the resources of some 38 million square nautical miles of ocean space.  To the coastal State falls the right to exploit, develop, manage and conserve all resources – fish or oil, gas or gravel, nodules or sulfur – to be found in the waters, on the ocean floor and in the subsoil of an area extending 200 miles from its shore.  The coastal state is required to allow transient navigation and abide by environmental conservation laws.

    Did Niger really need to participate? they just have an ocean of desert

The U.S. participated and signed the implementation of the treaty, but has not ratified the treaty (still TBD in Congress).  The U.S. has a problem with a provision over deep sea mining operations, but considers the rest of UNCLOS as a codification of international law.  China on the other hand has ratified the treaty along with the rest of the countries involved in the South China shuffle.  It’s important to keep in mind that up until UNCLOS, there was no internationally recognized rulebook. To form a quick conclusion, UNCLOS  put in writing rules to settle territorial disputes, manage resources, keep seas open to navigation, and to police international waters.

4.  On the fourth bullet of geopolitical history, I refer to a 2002 agreement by the Association of South East Asian Nations and China (ASEAN is: Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia) to,

  • “reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
  • “undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
  • “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”

    From the distance key, the disputed islands are clearly beyond the legal territory or EEZ of China

It’s pretty self-explanatory to see that this agreement has been breached by China, and to a lesser extent, Vietnam and the Philippines.

South China Analysis: Conclusion?

So what can we garner from our look back at this foreign policy issue?

  1. First off, China’s contention of a historical claim to the Scarborough Shoal and other disputed areas seems flawed: its own available historical records do not indicate any claim before the 20th Century.  Any historical claim seems unlikely anyways due to the undesirability of the rock formations from all peoples who had encountered the rocks.
  2. China and to some extent the other countries involved have breached the international laws of the sea by claiming territory beyond the law and preventing free navigation of the seaThe laws were written to prevent territorial struggles by defining navigation and claims, but only if they are followed.
  3. The expansive territorial claims came about from the discovery of valuable natural resources in the 20th Century from these disputed areas of the Sea.
  4. The standoff between China and the Philippines (the other land disputes between countries is at present less contentious) has huge geopolitical consequences that have the potential for conflict between global powers.  This small scale struggle has large-scale consequences.

It’s difficult to form an analysis of potential large-scale conflict because both the U.S. and China are quick to say they want to avoid violence.  Yet China has promoted their claims in the South China Sea in a nationalist rhetoric, spurring much public support of China’s claim.  Furthermore, according to an analysis by the International Crisis Group, the Chinese navy may be on an aggressive stance over their claim in order to receive a larger share of state funds; not an orderly process of financial or policy coordination.

The precedent of 2,500 American troops in Australia is making the Chinese nervous

The Obama Administration’s recent “shift to Asia”: a defense policy aimed at moving the focus and troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Orient along with friendly policy to many of China’s neighbors has spurred much talk from analysts that the U.S. is using “big stick” policy in order to counter greater Chinese investment in defense.  A popular theme from the South China Sea issue is that Chinese aggression is somehow related to the U.S. shift.

When asked what the U.S. would do if China and the Philippines came to blows, the State Department has been mum.  The more important issue that the U.S. wishes to enforce is the freedom of navigation of the seas which the U.S. feels China is restricting.  Remaining an enforcer of peace and of navigation (for itself or others) is an important stance of the U.S.

So, we started with a small body of water and some barely exposed rocks and ended up with a potential for global conflict…  Yikes, territorial squabbles are dangerous.              Until we uncover the next crisis in waiting,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:





Beyond the Scarborough Scare: Joint Resource Management in the South China Sea.  http://www.e-ir.info/2012/05/01/beyond-the-scarborough-scare-prospects-for-joint-resource-management-in-the-south-china-sea/






Overthrow! America’s Century of Regime Change, Stephen Kinzer


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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5 Responses to What’s the Deal With the Squabble in the South China Sea?

  1. Susan Barsy says:

    Your grasp of complex global issues continues to impress me. Good graphics, too. SB

  2. Phu Hiep DUONG says:

    what is the source of the first map? I think that the correct map is in this article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-17216576.
    The china’s claim’s “historic water” was a hand-made of 9 lines on the map which form a “Cow Tongue”, it’s really famous because there are not even any precise measurement / coordination. This cow tongue is invented in1947 by the Guǎngdōng authority. The “cow tongue” cover 90% surface of the South China Sea, and Pékin is trying hard to make it real.

  3. Jacob Wong says:

    I believe there’s an error in number 4, “On the fourth bullet of geopolitical history, I refer to a 2002 agreement by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN is: China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia).”
    China is not a member of ASEAN: http://www.aseansec.org/18619.htm

    • eprileson says:

      You are correct, Jacob. I mistakenly put China as part of ASEAN when the agreement that I cited was an agreement between China and ASEAN. thank you for pointing this out, it is being corrected.

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