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The South China Sea: The Politics of ‘Worthless’ Islands and Why They Matter 


By: Benjamin Jakabek



The last few years have been marked by a series of bizarre activities in the South China Sea. Large sea forts are being built on pillars in the middle of nowhere, islands are being created for no apparent reason, and hundreds of premeditated boat collisions have occurred between various nationals. These events have been gaining the attention of a growing audience since the late-1990s; some scholars even claim that the South China Sea will be the epicenter of future global conflicts.

I first became acquainted with the conflict after spending several days locked inside a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam in early June. There was no escape from the noise outside as heavy scooter traffic flowed through the narrow streets like giant schools of fish. The heat was stifling, and I was stuck in bed with a rather nasty flu. My only companion was a small television and the state broadcasting company known as VTV. At the time, China decided to move an oil rig into the middle of a long disputed group of islands known as the Paracels. Vietnam responded by moving their own ships into the region.



No weapons were fired in the resulting battle. The Vietnamese and Chinese ships simply rammed each other over 1,500 times; according to VTV. The events provided fascinating and infuriating content for the local VTV viewers as sailors continually sent their footage to the news stations on the mainland. Like many viewers in the West, I was unaware that the current events were just one incident in a four decade long dispute over the rarely discussed Paracel islands.

The islands that are being disputed are generally tiny, hundreds of kilometers offshore, and for the most part, completely unable to support self-sustaining economic life. The conflicts have focused on two groups of islands, the Paracel islands and the Spratly islands. The Paracel islands are located about 200 kilometers offshore from the Chinese coast and are currently being claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The Spratly islands are located over a thousand kilometers south of China. The islands in the Spratly archipelago are being contested between: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. China has asserted that these islands, and the sea that surrounds them, belongs under Chinese sovereignty. The Chinese claim has existed since 1947 and was largely unenforced until the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s and subsequent administrations. When looking at a map of the South China Sea, China’s claim looks like a giant U superimposed on the region; which is why the Chinese claim is often referred to as the U-Shape line.


The disputed South China Sea


The Significance of the South China Sea

Why are these tiny, uninhabitable, and remote islands important to China? The answer is simple: trade routes, resources and national pride.

The South China sea is a crucial naval passage for both economic and military purposes. It is one of the most heavily trafficked trade routes in the entire world. The passage serves as an essential gateway for trade to the West and oil coming from the Middle-East. Part of the regional tension is generated from the fact that the possession of certain islands, and the build up of military force on these islands, could easily allow the obstruction of these crucial logistical arteries. This potential problem has presented itself in the past, although in a different part of the world.

The Strait of Hormuz lies in the middle of the Persian and Oman Gulfs, and 35% of the world’s oil tanker traffic pass through it every year. In 1971, Iran seized several disputed islands in the Persian Gulf, thus solidifying their ability to stop crucial oil traffic on a moments notice. Any attempt to re-open the passage would of course lead to greater regional antagonisms and the possibility of armed conflict. Iranian threats to act unilaterally to close the straits have resulted in several standoffs between the American and Iranian navies since the late-1980s. Part of the South China Sea conflict is therefore a long-term chess game meant to avoid exactly this type of situation, where one state can potentially dictate the flow of commerce to their neighbors.

Natural resources also play a major role in the struggle. No one doubts that the South China Sea has large deposits of both oil and natural gas that could be commercially extracted for domestic or international use, however, some individuals contend that the figures are a tad over-stated in order to justify various costly behavior to domestic audiences. In Bill Hayton’s book, “The South China Sea” he states that some geological experts believe that the U-shaped claim would provide China with enough oil to run it’s economy for a few years at best. However, the exact quantity of oil and natural gas is still uncertain due to the fact that competing claimants routinely disrupt most survey missions.

The last factor that is driving China’s ambition is national pride. The islands might seem like a trivial claim to a country as large as China, but its leadership often strokes the flames of history whenever the topic comes up. The Party tries to paint itself as the vanguard of the people. Official history places a special emphasis on the fact that China went through a century of humiliation under Western domination until the Communist Party of China came to power and put an end to foreign exploitation. With regard to the disputed islands, citizens are told that they have always belonged to the Chinese people, and any assertion to the opposite spurs emotions connected to past national humiliations. In other words, saying that the Spratly Islands belong to the Philippines would be like suggesting that Macau and Hong Kong should be leased back to Portugal and the UK. As a result, part of the Communist Party of China’s legitimacy now rests on the successful acquisition of these islands.

As a quick side note, disputes in the East China Sea largely concern the same motivations relating to the South China Sea the most notably dispute being over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan.


International Law and the South China Sea

So what is the Chinese administration doing in order to acquire these islands? Their bizarre actions are essentially an attempt to assert their sovereignty, but also to

Back in 1982, the international community attempted to codify and better explain certain customary international laws with regard to sovereignty and the seas. The final product of the conference was a treaty called the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, also known as UNCLOS. At the time of writing this article, a total of 165 States have signed the treaty, including China, the most notable exception being the United States.

The document is actually fairly clear about what inalienable rights are associated with different types of land claims. With regard to the South China Sea, three terms are especially important: islands, rocks and reefs. Each of these categories are granted different types of inalienable rights. Any island that is believed to be capable of supporting human habitat can also claim territorial waters of up to 12 nautical miles. These islands also have the right to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, also known as an EEZ. Any natural resources within the EEZ are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the island’s owner. Rocks on the other hand, only get the 12 miles of territorial sea, but no EEZ. And finally, reefs, or to use the legalese, low-tide elevations, cannot be claimed by a state if it rests more then 12 nautical miles from existing territorial seas because UNCLOS excludes objects that are submerged during high-tide. At best, a reef can be used to extend an EEZ if it is within the territorial seas of a State.

How does one claim an island, rock or reef? There is actually a long list of options that can serve as examples of acts associated with sovereign ownership, which include: planting flags, drilling poles into a rock, or by building sea forts and various other structures on the disputed territory. China also maintains its claims by continually disrupting most foreign operations in the disputed areas, either through political pressure or direct intervention; this is especially true with regard to claims by Vietnam and the Philippines. However, it should be noted that this is a back-and-forth game played by nearly all serious claimants and not just China.


"Vietnam Spratly Islands 4" Credit: Do Kien Trung/CC BY 2.0

“Vietnam Spratly Islands 4” Credit: Do Kien Trung/CC BY 2.0


What’s interesting about China’s strategy is that they are currently pursuing a policy that is attempting to conform to both modern and outdated customary international laws; the type of law that they use depends on their particular interests. UNCLOS is the modern standard, while what is termed ‘historic rights’ is a largely outdated form of customary international law that places a special emphasis on any evidence of long-term involvement in a disputed area. An example of such long-term involvement would be the discovery of ancient Chinese objects near one of the disputed islands. UNCLOS does not permit the use of historic rights with regard to disputes in the South China Sea. However, China incorporates ‘historic rights’ language within their claims because the wording of UNCLOS would never justify their U-Shape claim.

China’s use of ‘historic rights’ arguments is one of the major reasons why this dispute will probably never appear before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In any conflict, the relevant parties need to give their consent in order for the court to have jurisdiction over the dispute. Given China’s pick-and-choose approach to international law it is not conceivable that China would ever give their consent to the ICJ.

It is important to note that some of the bizarre activities within the South China Sea are due to the fact that China often likes to appear as if it is working within the language of UNCLOS, which is probably one of the reasons why China decided to build artificial islands on top of several submerged reefs within the Spratlys. The assumption being that these submerged reefs could now claim to have an EEZ; although this would never hold up in front of the ICJ.

In the case of disputed territories involving Vietnam and the Philippines, China has made itself clear, ‘either you partially recognize Chinese sovereignty by stating that activities in the EEZ are joint projects or we will continue to disrupt all commercial ventures’. This has put some governments in an awkward situation. Their first option is to accept China’s terms, thus solidifying their seat in any future negotiations over the territory, and get a percentage of the oil resources within a few years. Their second option is to call the Chinese bluff and potentially get all of the resources within the EEZ. So far, the former has only tempted the cash-strapped government of the Philippines, however, the new administration has become a vocal opponent to the policy in recent years.


Armed Conflict

Will the South China Sea be a source of conflict in the future? The answer depends on a lot of “ifs.” At the moment, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has committed themselves to the peaceful resolution of all land disputes as part of their central mandate. However, if players like the Philippines manage to create an anti-China consensus within the ASEAN system in order to secure their own land claims, then the potential for conflict is possible. However, this seems unlikely as many of the ASEAN members are currently reaping the financial benefits of trade, and as a result, will not engage in any activities that will antagonize China.

The potential for conflict also hinges on the delicate interplay between the two superpowers within the region; the United States and China. So far, the ASEAN communities have been content to let both powers try to win their favor without picking sides; essentially they’re using the Shipoopi approach. As a result, military hardware, development aid and soft loans have poured in from both suitors. Non-commitment allows the smaller ASEAN States to maintain their independence as the two contrasting superpowers have a tendency to cancel each other out. A formal and rigid coalition on either side would definitely exacerbate tensions in the region.

The biggest potential source for conflict within the region is the possibility that China may choose to restrict foreign military vessels  or impose limitations of commercial traffic entering the South China Sea. China has already displayed this capability though various highly publicized naval voyages within the region and with its plans to increase warship, and in particular aircraft carrier production. An example of this behavior can be seen with the dispute between China and South Korea over the Suyan/Ieodo Rock in the East China Sea. China claimed that they had navigational control over the skies and declared an “air-defense identification zone.” In support of the Koreans, the Americans responded by flying two B-52 bombers within the “air-defense identification zone” in order to weaken Chinese credibility.

Similar incidents within the South China Sea would be major concern for the US military. This is because the South China Sea serves as a strategic passageway for it’s Middle-East, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean naval fleets; as alternative routes would add weeks to any given itinerary. If China attempts to rewrite international customs by limiting freedom of the seas within the region, conflict within the area could become a very real possibility.


Benjamin Jakabek is a fourth year Political Science student at Trinity College in the University of Toronto.

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Anders Bretsen is a first-year student at the University of Toronto, in the Trinity One International Relations program. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he frequently complains about the cold.

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