Everything you need to know about the South China Sea conflict – in under five minutes

June 9, 2015
An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool

1. Whose South China Sea is it, anyway?

China’s claim to the South China Sea is based in history, dating back to records from the Xia and Han dynasties. China delineates its claims via the nine-dash line, which Chiang Kai Shek advanced in 1947. During China’s republican era, China surveyed, mapped and named 291 islands and reefs in the region.

The United States contends that the South China Sea is international water, and sovereignty in the area should be determined by the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS states that countries can’t claim sovereignty over any land masses that are submerged at high tide, or that were previously submerged but have been raised above high tide level by construction.

In pictures: Disputes in the South China Sea

Members of Bayan Muna (Country First) Party List group display placards during a picket rally over territorial dispute with China in South China Sea, outside the Chinese Consulate in Makati

Members of the Philippine Bayan Muna (Country First) Party List group display placards during a picket rally over territorial dispute with China in South China Sea, outside the Chinese Consulate in Makati, Manila April 17, 2015. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

2. Why does China want to control the South China Sea?

Control of the South China Sea would allow China to dominate a major trade route through which most of its imported oil flows. It would also allow China to disrupt, or threaten to disrupt, trade shipments to all countries in East and Southeast Asia — as well as deny access to foreign military forces, particularly the United States.

The floor of the South China Sea may contain massive oil and natural gas reserves. Sovereignty over the region could give China a level of energy security and independence far beyond what it currently possesses.

Taiwan Coast Guard patrol ships and helicopters from National Airborne Service Corps are seen during a drill held about 4 nautical miles out of the port of Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan

Taiwan Coast Guard patrol ships and helicopters from its National Airborne Service Corps are seen during a drill held about 4 nautical miles out of the port of Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, June 6, 2015. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

3. Who has built what?

Island building in the South China Sea, and construction on existing islands, has been going on for decades, primarily by Vietnam and the Philippines, which have claimed 21 and eight islands, respectively. Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines have all stationed military forces on at least some of their islands, but Vietnam, in accordance with UNCLOS regulation, has not put troops on what it calls “floating islands” — those constructed on submerged sandbars, reefs and other land masses.

China has come late to the island building game, but its efforts have been on a scale never before seen in the region. In the last 18 months, China has reportedly constructed more new island surface than all other nations have constructed throughout history. And unlike other claimants, China has, at least briefly, placed military equipment on one of its artificial islands, and officials have said that the government plans to do so again. More importantly, only China possesses enough modern military vessels to protect its claims.

In pictures: Construction in the South China Sea

Still image from a United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft and provided by the United States Navy, May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters

4.  What is the U.S. response to the dispute?

The United States had virtually no response to previous building by Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, but has vigorously opposed China’s efforts. The U.S. Navy has operated continuously in the region since World War Two and, according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, has every intention of continuing to do so.

The United States will use its aircraft and naval vessels to assert freedom of navigation in the region, as demonstrated by the recent passage of the USS Fort Worth combat ship and the flight, by a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, over the Chinese construction at Fiery Reef.

Beyond freedom of navigation missions, the United States is focused on strengthening regional allies. To do so, it will help boost its allies’ intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities, and provide them with updated military hardware to counter China’s technical advantages in both quantity and quality. (The Philippines, the recipient of U.S. military assistance and training since World War Two, is sorely lacking in military hardware, having only two very old U.S. Coast Guard cutters with which to respond to Chinese incursions.)

Japan, in close coordination with the United States, is to supply military hardware to the Philippines and Vietnam.

Members of Philippine marines are transported on rubber boat from patrol ship after conducting mission on disputed Second Thomas Shoal as they make way to naval forces camp in Palawan

Members of the Philippine marines are transported on a rubber boat from a patrol ship after conducting a mission on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, on their way to a camp in Palawan province, southwest Philippines, March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

5. What should the world expect next?

The dispute between the United States and China is likely to escalate to some degree. U.S. Pacific Command planners are preparing to sail and fly within 12 nautical miles of areas that China claims as sovereign territory. The USS Fort Worth and a P-8 surveillance aircraft have already operated close by, and while China objected, it did not take hostile action.

However, China has stated that it will defend what it considers its territorial limit. If the Chinese government blinks, it could suffer domestically due to the loss of face for the Communist Party. If the United States wavers, it will risk perpetuating the impression, among U.S. partners and allies, that it lacks resolve in light of its policy in the Middle East, Iraq and Ukraine.

The stakes are high for both sides, as is the risk of a miscalculation. The United States is marshaling major allies in the region to take a role, in the hope that the combined weight of U.S., Japanese and Australian forces will give China pause.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry speaks with Chinese Premier Li at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing, May 16, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

 

20 comments

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The USA is not listed as a ‘party’ in the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea . USA has not signed the convention, although they signed the agreement.

Posted by dryshrimp | Report as abusive

Everything you need to know about the South China Sea:

The 2nd word in that name.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Here is a outline depicting the expansion of a Island in the south china sea. Green outline was made in 2012 – from this you can see the harbour expansion and more land reclamation.

https://www.anony.ws/image/DKYu

Posted by jmarcomm | Report as abusive

China should blow the next US plane out of the sky, say sorry, done. The US won’t retaliate, but then they are stupid enough to believe they can beat China.

Posted by v_morrissey | Report as abusive

Philippines should put their energy and focus on get their people out of extreme poverlty….

Posted by HISPANICVOTERS | Report as abusive

Of course we can expect a completely even-handed analysis from a US ex-military officer.

Posted by Donquixote2u | Report as abusive

Regarding item 1, during the Yuan dynasty China suffered defeats in their invasion of Japan (twice) and Java of Indonesia. The succeeding Ming dynasty did send huge naval fleet beyond their waters under Chung He but discontinued them on account of unprofitability and sealed their imperial maritime domain with a self isolating Haijin Edict banning maritime ventures, trade and commerce outside their realm to combat piracy. Later a huge naval force commander (Omoncon) met Spanish authorities in Manila and joined them in their search to destroy the infamous Chinese pirate Limahong establishing an informal maritime boundary between the Kingdom of Spain and Empire of China that remained until the next Qing dynasty became interested in the rich waters on desolate islands of the now West Philippine Sea supporting their protectorate and ally to regain territories lost to Spain south of the archipelago. Secrecy of these facts have made us ignorant into trembling at the might of China’s false history.

Posted by esmarquez | Report as abusive

China should blow the next US plane out of the sky, say sorry, done. The US won’t retaliate, but then they are stupid enough to believe they can beat China?????

Either you’re mentally slow or perhaps you don’t have a 4th grade education. So you’re saying China can beat America? Are you that slow, man?

Any war with China would be WW3 and destruction of the World. Be careful for what you wish for, buffon!!

Posted by brocklanders | Report as abusive

Did we ask China if we could build the Panama Canal? Man, all this whining. Who cares what China builds in the South China Sea? Be their friend and this suddenly becomes awesome progress in our favor. Or just complain like a ghetto country and feel left out.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“China has come late to the island building game, but its efforts have been on a scale never before seen in the region. In the last 18 months, China has reportedly constructed more new island surface than all other nations have constructed throughout history”
Sauce for goose; sauce for gander: The US, through its South China Sea allies – Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines – should start constructing new island surface equal to whatever China constructs. Whatever claims of sovereignty China makes, have these allies make.
Bagging, pleading, threatening, gets nowhere.

Posted by oldnassau | Report as abusive

South China Sea………..China Sea…….China

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Basics:
1. China, as a growing power, is squeezing none of the ASEAN countries but US military existence for sure.
2. US paid cost during WWII to be superpower/supercontrol of the world and the world won’t be paying back for ever.It is time for US to retreat.
3. The way now the US treat China is the way in the future China treats US. It’s US choice.

Posted by TonyWall | Report as abusive

If I was China I would tone down my military threats and simply continue building for my own non-military purposes. Build oil derricks if you want, but don’t be hostile if a U.S. plane flies over. What is the U.S. going to do? Attack your civilian infrastructure without military provocation? Unlikely. If the world is a business, then war would be completely irrational for China. The only other alternative is a war which China would surly lose.

Posted by fake_name | Report as abusive

The US after making a TOTAL mess of the middle east, almost starting a war in europe, is now focusing on the south china sea. They are out of control! they demand regime change in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and probably next ! Russia !!! who gave them this right?

Posted by gomojo | Report as abusive

This will be tense for sometime.
Who blinks first?

Posted by MarkmBha1 | Report as abusive

What if China started deploying its navy to the Caribbean? ^_^

Posted by DirtyMordy | Report as abusive

It is impossible to understand these issues without a sense of history. An excellent reference for English readers is China’s World War II 1937-1945; Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter, c. 2013 by Rana Mitter, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Anyone involved in foreign policy should read this. Chinese policy makers should also remember that China was a closed country after World War II and very little information was available for decades.

Posted by Jeju | Report as abusive

China needs to protect its’ shipping lanes from piracy. Exports depend on security for container ships. If both exporters and importers could address this issue rationally, there may be progress.

Posted by Jeju | Report as abusive

Hey brainwashed commies… South China Sea does not belong to you. GTFO of Spratly’s, none of these islands belong to you. If war ever comes. You guys would lose cause the rest of the world will combine forces to defeat you. You guys are the new villian. Stop comparing what Europe/US did in the past. china can’t do those things in this new global economy. #NextEvilEmpire

Posted by iownyou | Report as abusive

so if Trump or Putin build an island just in international waters and create a new nation, Trumpsulvania or Putinsburg the world should just back down?

Posted by al321 | Report as abusive