Southeast Asia is home to a range of complex territorial disputes, but the most intractable and combustible is the South China Sea dispute. Tensions between the rival countries have been on the rise in recent years. An Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has ruled in favour of the Philippines in a case brought by that country against China.Jump to full report >>
The Paracel Islands are disputed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands are disputed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. The Scarborough Shoal, just to the west of the Philippines, which is sometimes considered to be part of the Spratly Islands, is claimed by The Philippines, China and Taiwan. The maritime boundaries of the Gulf of Tonkin are also disputed by China and Vietnam.
Apart from national pride, access to fisheries and oil and gas resources is at also stake. The area is also one of the world’s major shipping routes.
China has been involved in the majority of the direct clashes between rival claimants in the South China Sea dispute. The relationship between China and Vietnam is perhaps the most volatile of those between the rival claimants.
China is opposed to greater US involvement in the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, preferring bilateral negotiations. The other countries favour greater US involvement and prefer multilateral negotiations through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, China has not been entirely hostile to more multilateral approaches. In 2002 China and ASEAN agreed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in which all countries agreed to seek peaceful solutions to disputes in the South China Sea. Since 2011, there has been talk of agreeing a legally binding Code of Conduct for all parties but to date no meaningful progress has been made towards one.
The last five years or so have seen rising tensions over rival claims in the South China Sea. The countries involved in the dispute have been strengthening their military capabilities, with some also exploring legal avenues. In addition, there have been intermittent efforts to reduce tensions through dialogue.
In April 2015 satellite images revealed that China had begun building a large airstrip on reclaimed land on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. China insisted that the airstrip was for civilian purposes, but many were highly sceptical, with fears being expressed that China might impose an ‘air defence zone’ over the area, as it did over the East China Sea, where it has overlapping claims with Japan, in 2013.
In October, an Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider the claim of the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China and that the claim was admissible. China condemned the decision, rejecting the Tribunal’s jurisdiction and repeating its opposition to any third-party settlement of territorial disputes.
In the same month, the US sailed a destroyer within 12-nautical miles of new artificial islands being built by China in the Spratlys, announcing that this was the first of a series of actions intended to assert the right to free navigation in the region. China warned the US that such a move would further increase tensions and retaliated by holding a naval exercise in the South China Sea. It also leaked reports that a Chinese naval vessel might ram the next US warship that entered what it considered its territory.
Also in December, a US B-52 strategic bomber flew within a few miles of a reef claimed by China in the South China Sea. China accused the US of a “serious military provocation”; the US said that it had been an error.
The South China Sea dispute was discussed at several intergovernmental summits during the second half of 2015, including the ASEAN summit. However, some analysts see ASEAN as a divided and increasingly marginal player.
Amid mounting tension in the region during the first half of 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal issued its ruling on 12 July, finding in favour of the Philippines. However, the legally binding ruling does not adjudicate on sovereignty.
The impact of the ruling is difficult to predict. The Philippines appears anxious to de-escalate tensions with China, but the latter is yet to accept the olive branch. So for now the most likely future outlook is that the rival claimants will continue with their military build-ups and further escalation is possible. As always, the fear is that a flashpoint might inadvertently trigger a larger armed confrontation whose consequences could prove difficult to control.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7481
Authors: Jon Lunn; Arabella Lang