In recent years, China has undertaken drastic efforts to dredge and reclaim thousands of square feet in the South China Sea. It has deployed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems on the Spratly Islands, and constructed military infrastructure on several artificial islands, such as runways, support buildings, loading piers, and communications facilities. China’s land development has profound security implications. The potential to deploy aircraft, missiles, and missile defense systems to any of its constructed islands vastly boot China’s ability to project power, extending its operational range south and east by as much as 1,000 kilometers

The South China Sea is a critical commercial gateway for a significant portion of the world’s merchant shipping, and hence is an important economic and strategic sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. It is also the site of several complex territorial disputes that have been the cause of conflict and tension within the region and throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Geographically, the South China Sea plays a significant role in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. The South China Sea is bordered by Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Their recent economic growth has contributed to a large portion of the world’s commercial merchant shipping passing through these waters. Japan and South Korea rely heavily on the South China Sea for their supply of fuels and raw materials and as an export route, although the availability of diversionary sea lanes bypassing the South China Sea provides non-littoral states with some flexibility in this regard. The South China Sea also contains rich, though unregulated and over-exploited fishing grounds and is reported to hold significant reserves of undiscovered oil and gas, which is an aggravating factor in maritime and territorial disputes.

The major island and reef formations in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, the Natuna Islands and Scarborough Shoal.

  1. Spratly Islands: The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds - and potentially by gas and oil deposits. They are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines
  2. Paracel Islands: China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim the archipelago
  3. Pratas: Republic of China
  4. Natuna Islands: Although China has acknowledged Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna islands, the PRC has argued that the waters around the Natuna islands are Chinese "traditional fishing grounds".
  5. Scarborough Shoal: Philippines

Competing claims of territorial sovereignty over islands and smaller features in the South China Sea have been a longstanding source of tension and distrust in the region. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was concluded in 1982 and came into force in 1994, established a legal framework intended to balance the economic and security interests of coastal states with those of seafaring nations. UNCLOS enshrines the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile area that extends sole exploitation rights to coastal nations over marine resources. However, the EEZ was never intended to serve as a security zone, and UNCLOS also guarantees wide-ranging passage rights for naval vessels and military aircraft.

While UNCLOS has been signed and ratified by nearly all the coastal countries in the South China Sea, its interpretation is still hotly disputed. Moreover, legal and territorial disputes persist, primarily over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as Scarborough Shoal, the scene of ongoing tensions between China and the Philippines. In terms of the Spratlys, more than 60 geographic features are reportedly occupied by claimants, which consist of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Malaysia. The Paracel Islands are the subject of overlapping claims by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. China makes the largest claim in the South China Sea, within a ‘dash-line’ map published by the Kuomintang Government in 1947. The ambiguous nine or ten ‘dash line’, which China asserts is based on evidence of historical usage, is disputed by other South China Sea territorial claimants and lacks a legal foundation under UNCLOS.

Australia has significant interests in the South China Sea, both economically, in terms of freedom of trade and navigation.

The South China Sea has also strategic value for Northeast Asia Countries, namely South Korea and Japan as most commerce and oil flows pass through the SCS shipping lanes.

The US Navy, in a show of force against the Chinese territorial claims, regularly conducts so-called "freedom of navigation" operations in which their vessels pass close by some of the contested islands. Countries including Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, have also been expanding their activity in the Pacific to counter China's influence.


  1. China
  2. Brunei
  3. Cambodia
  4. Indonesia
  5. Malaysia
  6. Philippines
  7. Singapore
  8. Taiwan
  9. Thailand
  10. Vietnam
  11. Australia
  12. New Zealand
  13. South Korea
  14. Japan
  15. USA
  16. UK
  17. France
  18. Germany






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