Who owns the South China Sea?

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

Larger than the Mediterranean, the South China Sea covers around 1,423,000 square miles and for decades, several countries including, China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei have competed over ownership. With the location being a major shipping route and home to plentiful natural resources and fishing grounds, this disagreement has led to multiple disputes over the years and up until the current day.

Rules upon the territorial sea direct that the coastal state has rights to explore, exploit and conserve natural resources in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and can establish and use artificial islands if due notice is given of their construction. This zone consists of 200 nautical miles extending from the baselines. As multiple countries are disputing over their claims to different parts of this sea and claiming other governments are acting illegally, this has led to numerous head-on attacks and casualties.

Disputes 2014 - 2021

For example, Whitsun Reef has been the recent focus of these disputes. Both the Philippines and China claim this 13km long boomerang-shaped reef which appears above water at low tide. The reef is 320km from the Philippines and 1,060km from China. The Philippines have named the Whitsun Reef, Julian Felipe Reef and claim ownership as it lies within their EEZ.

Tensions mounted during March 2021, when Chinese ships appeared lined up around Whitsun Reef in military precision. Whilst China claimed they were sheltering from bad weather, the Philippine government comparatively claimed they belonged to China’s maritime militia. On the 21st of March 2021, the Philippine defence minister Delfin Lorenzana demanded the Chinese vessels leave the reef’s lagoon. However, the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has long been accused of compliancy with China since he took office in 2016, previously stating “if I send my marines to drive away the Chinese fisherman, I guarantee you not one of them will come home alive.”

However, this time in retaliation, The Philippines have boosted their presence in the South China Sea close to areas of Chines military installation and are refusing to move. In a televised address aired on the 14th of May 2021, Duterte commented, “we have a stand here and I want to state it here and now again that our ships there…we will not move an inch backwards.”

In response, the Chinese national defence aims on safeguarding maritime rights and interests declare “The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinse territory. China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.”

Furthermore, the Paracel and Spratly island chains are also a key focus upon this disagreement, with China, Vietnam and The Philippines all claiming sovereignty.

In 2018, The Economist reported that China had installed anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles on three islands in the Spratly archipelago and in June 2020 reported that China had built 12 square kilometres of artificial islands. China claims this is their right since the island chains have been regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation which they proved by issuing a map in 1947 detailing these claims, despite being 3,092km from the islands. However, Vietnam disputes this account and has documents to prove it has ruled over both these islands since the 17th century. Equally, The Philippines claims these islands on the grounds of geographical proximity.

A further example of disputes caused by disagreements over the South China Sea are the protests in Vietnam in May 2014. This violence followed the stationing of an oil rig by China in an area of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam on the 1st of May 2014. In response, a flotilla of Vietnamese ships were sent to the area and became involved in a skirmish with 80 Chinese boats. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, urged Vietnam “not to attempt to further complicate and aggravate the current maritime friction,” according to the state-run Global Times newspaper. The protest in response consisted of a 1,000 strong mob storming a giant Taiwanese steel mill in Ha Tinh Province in central Vietnam setting a building of Chinese employees ablaze. 21 people were killed and nearly 100 were injured as a consequence.


Whilst the disputes detailed above primarily involve the countries claiming areas of the South China Sea, this issue echoes worldwide and the responsibility has been placed upon other countries to take action and help to settle this disagreement.

America has responded to these disputes in the South China sea with Joe Biden’s latest statement during his first face-to-face White House summit declaring he is “committed to working together to take on challenges from China and on issues like the East China sea, the South China sea, as well as North Korea.” Whilst Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga said the US and Japan would oppose coercion or force in the South and East China seas following this summit with Joe Biden.

Previously, the Donald Trump Administration had increased its “freedom of navigation operations,” and persuaded Britain and France to follow suit. Whilst in June 2020, in correspondence with the Donald Trump Administration and the Chinese building of artificial islands, Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, had claimed the actions of China were “completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying.” Furthermore, in 2018 the head of America’s Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, claimed “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States," which illustrates the troubling consequences of allowing this dispute to continue over time.

The implications of these disputes within the South China Sea have been detrimental. The first-hand effects of disputes have led to multiple collisions between countries, protests, rammed vessels, harassment of sailors, sunk fishing boats not to mention the environmental impact and unpromising impact upon fishing. If these disputes are left to boil under the surface it is only a matter of time before they erupt and the casualties are too exigent.