South China Sea: facts on a decades-long dispute

2016-09-07 18:02
A map of the South China Sea on display at a maritime defence educational facility in Nanjing in east China's Jiangsu province. (AFP)

A map of the South China Sea on display at a maritime defence educational facility in Nanjing in east China's Jiangsu province. (AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Vientiane - The disputed South China Sea was in focus on Wednesday at a regional summit in Laos, the first such gathering since an international court said Beijing's artificial island building programme there was "illegal".

China claims most of the sea, even waters approaching neighbouring countries, based on a vaguely defined "nine-dash-line" found on Chinese maps from the 1940s.

The Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations dispute this claim.

Commentators say the 3 million square kilometres of water are a potential flashpoint for regional conflict.

Here are four key questions about the sea and the issues around it.

- What's there and who's disputing it?

It's mostly empty - hundreds of small islets, rocks and reefs that are not naturally able to support human settlement.

Significant chains include the Paracels in the north and the Spratlys in the south.

But everyone around the sea - Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, tiny Brunei, Taiwan and, most significantly, China - lay claim to at least some part of it.

- If there's nothing there, why is there any dispute?

Scientists believe the seabed could contain unexploited oil, gas and minerals, which would be a boon to any country that can establish their claims, especially in resource-hungry Asia.

It's also home to abundant fisheries that feed growing populations.

But the sea's key value is strategic.

Over $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the waters annually, including raw materials, finished products and enormous quantities of oil.

Beijing views the South China Sea as its own backyard, a place where it is entitled to free rein and where its growing navy should be able to operate unhampered.

China also sees control of the waters as crucial to its effort to weaken American influence in the region.

- How have these disputes been playing out?

For years, claimants have been building up the tiny reefs and islets to bolster their claims. China's land-reclamation programme has been particularly aggressive.

Satellite pictures now show inhabited Chinese islands where there was once only submerged coral. Many have multiple facilities, including some with runways long enough for huge planes.

Beijing insists its intent is peaceful but the US and others suspect China is trying to assert its claims and say that it could pose threats to the free passage of ships.

Washington says the waters are international and regularly sends warships there to press freedom of navigation.

China counters that these missions are provocations and warns the US not to interfere. It regularly stages its own exercises in the area as a show of force.

- What was the international ruling about?

A UN-backed tribunal in The Hague ruled in July that China has no historic rights to resources in sea areas falling within the so-called "nine-dash-line".

It was a sweeping victory for the Philippines, which filed the case in 2013.

The tribunal also found that artificial islands that China has been building over recent years do not have the 200 nautical mile "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) enjoyed by inhabited land, effectively shrinking areas of sea that China claims.

It said China had behaved unlawfully and damaged the environment.

But Beijing has ignored the ruling, announcing penalties for "illegal" fishing in the sea and continuing its reclamation activities.


Read more on:    china  |  south china sea

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.