Territorial claims in the South China Sea

By Stevie Simmons

Over the past few decades, China has quietly laid claim over certain territory within the East China Sea and the South China Sea.[1] Recently, China has been actively contesting its claims leading to increased tensions with some of its neighbors.[2] China has claimed islands and parts of the Pacific also claimed by neighboring countries in the region, including Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam.[3]  Recently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has ruled in favor of the Philippines, rejecting Chinese claims over contested territory in the South China Sea. [4] These claims illustrate a growing willingness on the part of China towards challenging customary international norms, and increasingly signal growing tensions between China and the United States in the Pacific.

China’s Claims

China claims that the contested areas in the East and South China Seas have been a part of Chinese territory since ancient times. In the South China Sea, China delineates this region by what it calls the “9-dash line,” an unspecified region that could cover roughly 86% of the South China Sea.[5] In the East China Sea, this area consists of the region of the sea surrounding eight uninhibited islands, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands were claimed by Japan in the late 19th Century, ceded to America after World War II, and then given back to Japan in the 1971 deal that returned Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty.[6] These islands face renewed importance due to their proximity to valuable shipping lanes, fishing areas, and a large natural gas field.[7] In order to support their claims in both Seas, China has created large artificial islands, shipping in sand to build military bases, sports fields and naval berths in its bid to control the territory.[8]  

American Involvement

While none of the disputed territory actually has been claimed by the United States, many of the nations involved are American allies, or else strongly dependent on American military support.[9] America has signed mutual defense pacts with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, suggesting that any of these territorial claims could lead to war between the United States and China.[10] Besides the risk of war, America has interest in keeping shipping lanes open between the United States and its trading partners in East Asia. China, on the contrary, has criticized American involvement in the dispute as a destabilizing factor.[11] China has viewed the situation in the East and South China Seas as generally stable, with American statements inflaming the situation.[12]

The July 12 Permanent Court of Arbitration Ruling

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a legal dispute over territory in the South China Sea.[13] The court ruled against China in nearly every particular, calling the Chinese historical claims “extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea],”[14] that the Chinese actions in the region were unlawful, and that the Chinese activities had caused harm to the environment by eroding reefs and harvesting endangered species.[15] This ruling has firmly shown that the Chinese position in claiming territory in the South China Sea is contrary to international law and forces other players in the region to choose between supporting the Chinese or Filipino position.

Responses to the July 12 Ruling

China responded to the July 12 ruling by declaring that the ruling was “null and void and having no binding force.”[16]  While it still is too soon to tell what the reaction will be, it appears that China has not changed its tactics despite losing on all points to the Philippines.[17] Observers have even speculated that Vietnam will follow the Philippines example and challenge Chinese tactics towards claiming contested territory also within the nine-dash line. [18] The ruling then legitimizes the position of China’s rivals for the contested territory in the South China Sea and will increase their willingness to challenge China’s attempt to claim territory demarcated by the nine-dash line.


The Chinese attempt to claim portions of the East and South China Seas has pitted China against the majority of its neighbors in the region, and has the potential to even draw in the United States.  Even with international opinion strongly against China, as illustrated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Ruling, it seems unlikely that China will back down, leaving an uneasy stalemate in effect in the East and South China Seas.

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[1] China’s Maritime Disputes, Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/chinas-maritime-disputes/p31345#!/p31345.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Press Release, International Court of Arbitration, The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. the Peoples Republic of China) (Jul. 12 2016) https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2990864/Press-Release-on-South-China-Sea-Decision.pdf.

[5] Marina Tsirbas, What Does the Nine-Dash Line Actually Mean?, The Diplomat (Jun. 2, 2016), http://thediplomat.com/2016/06/what-does-the-nine-dash-line-actually-mean/.

[6] How uninhabited islands soured China-Japan ties, BBC News (Nov. 10 2014), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11341139.

[7] Id.

[8] Jane Perlez, Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea, N.Y. Times (Jul. 12, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html?_r=0.

[9]U.S. Collective Defense Arrangements, U.S. Dept. of State, http://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense/

[10] Id.

[11] Perlez, supra note 6.

[12] David J. Firestein, The US-China Perception Gap in the South China Sea, The Diplomat (Aug. 19, 2016), http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/the-us-china-perception-gap-in-the-south-china-sea/.

[13] Press Release at 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Firestein, supra note 10.

[17] Id.

[18] Shawn W. Crispin, Will Vietnam File a South China Sea Case Against China?, The Diplomat (Aug. 3, 2016), http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/will-vietnam-file-a-south-china-sea-case-against-china/.