Contention over South China Sea

What’s behind diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Spratly and Parcel Islands- Their location

Mains level: South China Sea dispute

In the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, China has been busy increasing its presence in the South China Sea.

The dispute

  • In the past few years, China has stepped up military aggression and has created artificial islands for military and economic purposes in the South China Sea.
  • This has drawn criticism from neighbouring countries and other western powers.
  • Soon after, Chinese and Australian warships also entered the fray.
  • Following the arrival of American warships, regional observers expressed concern that the US’s presence may only serve to heighten tensions.
  • The US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea but is known to send its naval force into the waters each time there are provocative developments in the waters, particularly angering China.

Map observations in the South China Sea are must-dos for the CSE aspirants. UPSC often toggles in the Middle East,  West and Central Asian region. This year we can expect a different region for a  map-based question.

Why in news now?

China’s advent for islands

  • This past week, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries who have also laid claim to the same territory.
  • The focus of Chinese acquisitory attention is the two disputed archipelagos of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the middle of the South China Sea waters.
  • They lie between the territory of Vietnam and the Philippines.
  • If the dispute were to aggravate, Asia-Pacific researchers believe it could have serious consequences for diplomatic relations and stability in the region.

What is the Spratly Islands dispute about?

  • There has been an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc.
  • Since 1968, these nations have engaged in varying kinds of military occupation of the islands and the surrounding waters, with the exception of Brunei, that has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
  • Although the Spratly Islands are largely uninhabited, there is a possibility that they may have large reserves of untapped natural resources.
  • However, due to the ongoing dispute, there have been few initiatives to explore the scale of these reserves.

Quest for Oil

  • Over the years, US government agencies have claimed that there is little to no oil and natural gas in these islands, but these reports have done little to reduce the territorial dispute.
  • In the 1970s, oil was discovered in neighbouring islands, specifically off the coast of Palawan. This discovery ramped up territorial claims by these countries.

What is the Paracel Islands dispute about?

  • The Paracel Islands dispute is slightly more complex. This archipelago is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs and is located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam.
  • Beijing says that references to the Paracel Islands as a part of China sovereign territory can be found in 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty.
  • Vietnam on the other hand, says that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.
  • These islands also find mention in records starting from the 16th century by explorers who led expeditions to the East.
  • Colonial powers of the French-Indochina further accelerated the tensions with regard to the Paracel Islands due to their colonial policies in the 20th century.
  • By 1954, tensions had dramatically increased between China and Vietnam over the archipelago.

What is the most recent dispute about?

  • Recent China established new administrative districts on both Spratly and Paracel Islands.
  • It also renamed those 80 islands, reefs and other geographical features around the two archipelagos with Chinese names.
  • The last time China had unilaterally engaged in a similar initiative was in 1983 where 287 geographical features had been renamed in the disputed chain of islands.

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