South China Sea

South China Sea



The South China Sea is home to numerous small islands, reefs, and shoals, many of which are disputed among neighboring countries.

It is estimated to contain significant oil and natural gas reserves, making it a lucrative area for energy exploration. Additionally, the sea is a major fishing ground, supporting the livelihoods of millions of people in the region.

China's construction of artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea has raised tensions with neighboring countries and drawn criticism from the international community. The United States, in particular, has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the area to challenge China's claims and assert the rights of other countries to navigate and operate in international waters.

The South China Sea is also a key strategic location for global trade, with one-third of the world's shipping passing through its waters. Its importance for international commerce and security has led to increased efforts by countries outside the region, such as the United States, to ensure freedom of navigation and uphold maritime law in the area.

Significance of the South China Sea

  • Geopolitical Significance:

The South China Sea is strategically located, and bordered by nations such as China, Taiwan, the Indo-Chinese peninsula, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. It serves as a critical link between the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, making it a geopolitical hotspot.

  • Trade Hub:

The South China Sea is a vital global trade route, facilitating approximately USD 3.37 trillion worth of trade in 2016. This accounts for 80% of global trade volume and 70% by the value transported by sea. Given its central location, Asia witnesses 60% of global shipping passing through these waters, with one-third of it traversing the South China Sea. China, as the world's second-largest economy, heavily relies on this route, with an estimated 64% of its trade passing through, while India depends on the region for about 55% of its trade.

  • Economic Implications:

Apart from being a trade hub, the South China Sea is a rich fishing ground, serving as a crucial source of livelihood and food security for millions in the region. This further emphasizes its economic significance beyond trade, affecting the sustenance of communities.

  • Global Shipping Dynamics:

With the majority of global trade moving through sea routes, any disruptions in the South China Sea have profound implications for international shipping dynamics. Tensions in the region can impact the movement of goods, affecting economies worldwide.

  • Strategic Importance for Nations:

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve competing claims over features like the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, Natuna Islands, and Scarborough Shoal. These disputes directly affect the strategic interests of nations in the region and have broader implications for international relations.

Major Disputes in the South China Sea:

  • Territorial Claims:

The central issue in the South China Sea dispute revolves around competing claims to land features, including islands and reefs, and the corresponding territorial waters. The contested areas include the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, the Natuna Islands, and Scarborough Shoal.

  • Key Features in Dispute:

Several prominent island and reef formations are at the core of the dispute, with around 70 contested reefs and islets. Countries involved, such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan, have each undertaken substantial construction activities, establishing over 90 outposts on these disputed features.

  • China's Assertive Claims:

China's territorial claims are notably asserted through its "nine-dash line" map, encompassing up to 90% of the South China Sea. This expansive claim has led to heightened tensions in the region. China has not only claimed vast territorial waters but has also engaged in physical expansions, particularly in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

  • Artificial Island-Building:

China has been actively involved in significant dredging and artificial island-building activities, creating approximately 3,200 acres of new land since 2013. This strategic move aims to reinforce China's presence and control in the disputed territories, contributing to the complexity of the South China Sea dispute.

  • Control of Scarborough Shoal:

China has maintained a consistent Coast Guard presence to exert control over the Scarborough Shoal. This control is part of China's broader efforts to establish dominance in the South China Sea, adding another layer of contention to the territorial disputes.

Efforts to Resolve the Dispute:

  • Code of Conduct (CoC):

Discussions between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been underway to establish a Code of Conduct (CoC) as a mechanism for managing the South China Sea situation. However, progress has been slow, attributed to internal disputes within ASEAN and the vast scope of China's territorial claims. The establishment of an effective CoC continues to face challenges.

  • Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DoC):

In 2002, both ASEAN and China adopted the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DoC), signifying their commitment to resolving disputes peacefully in adherence to international law. The DoC was intended to pave the way for the eventual development of a Code of Conduct (CoC). However, progress toward a CoC has proven elusive despite the initial declaration.

  • Arbitral Proceedings:

Taking a legal route, the Philippines initiated arbitral proceedings against China in 2013 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) issued a ruling against China's expansive "nine-dash line" claim, deeming it inconsistent with UNCLOS. Despite the international legal ruling, China rejected the arbitration decision, asserting its sovereignty and historical rights. This move by China challenged the authority of the PCA, complicating the resolution process.

Way Forward:

  • Multilateral Engagement:

Encourage robust participation from the international community, including nations beyond the South China Sea region, to actively engage in diplomatic initiatives. The objective is to ensure that any resolution is equitable, unbiased, and aligns with international norms, particularly those outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Multilateral cooperation can bring diverse perspectives to the negotiation table, fostering a comprehensive and inclusive approach to dispute resolution.

  • Environmental Protection:

Prioritize collaborative efforts aimed at safeguarding the marine environment in the South China Sea. This involves combating illegal fishing, mitigating pollution, and preserving biodiversity. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies reveals alarming statistics, indicating a depletion of fish stocks by 70 to 95% since the 1950s and a 16% decline per decade in coral reefs. Environmental protection measures should be integral to the resolution process to ensure the long-term sustainability of the region.

  • Maritime Peace Parks:

Explore innovative solutions, such as the establishment of maritime peace parks or designated protected areas within the South China Sea. Drawing inspiration from terrestrial national parks, these areas could serve peaceful purposes, including conservation, research, and ecotourism. By transcending political disputes and focusing on shared environmental and scientific interests, maritime peace parks could provide a constructive framework for collaboration and confidence-building among nations involved in the South China Sea dispute.


The complex and long standing disputes in the South China Sea necessitate a multifaceted approach for sustainable resolution. Engaging the international community through multilateral efforts ensures a fair and impartial process aligned with established norms, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Environmental protection emerges as a critical imperative, requiring collaborative measures to address the alarming depletion of marine resources. Exploring innovative concepts like maritime peace parks offers a path forward, transcending political differences and fostering cooperation for the common good. By combining diplomatic engagement, environmental stewardship, and creative solutions, a more harmonious and stable future for the South China Sea can be envisioned.