Understanding the South China Sea Dispute

By David Chu
David Chu
David Chu
David Chu is a London-based journalist who has been working in the financial sector for almost 30 years in major cities in China and abroad, including South Korea, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries. He was born in a family specializing in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has a background in ancient Chinese literature.
February 2, 2023Updated: February 2, 2023

As the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military power has grown in recent years, the regime has violated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by implementing a series of arbitrary agendas according to its unilateral interpretation of the sovereignty of the waters. As Indonesia and Vietnam expressed deep concerns about China’s massive-scale patrol crafts and drills on the North Natuna Sea, the two countries finally concluded negotiations on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary lines on Dec. 28, 2022, after 12 years of intense negotiations. Shortly afterwards, China Coast Guard (CCG) 5901 sailed in the area.

Indonesia Sent a Warship to Monitor a Chinese Coast Guard Vessel

Laksamana Muhammad Ali, chief of the Indonesian navy, told Reuters on Jan. 14 that a warship, a patrol aircraft, and an unmanned drone were deployed to the North Natuna Sea to monitor a China coast guard vessel that had been active in a resource-rich maritime area that both Indonesia and China claim as their own.

According to Reuters, the Indonesian Ocean Justice Initiative said that CCG 5901 had been sailing in the Natuna Sea since Dec. 30, 2022, particularly near the Tuna Bloc gas field and the Vietnamese Chim Sao oil and gas field.

The vessel monitoring systems (VMS) indicated that CCG 5901 departed from Sanya, a seaside city in Hainan Province, on Dec. 16, and arrived in the Indonesian EEZ on Dec. 30.

Epoch Times Photo
Indonesia’s Deputy Minister for Maritime Affairs Arif Havas Oegroseno points at the location of the North Natuna Sea on a new map of Indonesia during talks with reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 14, 2017. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

After Indonesia and Vietnam concluded negotiations on the EEZ boundary lines of both countries in December 2022, Indonesia later launched its first exploration and drilling plan in the Tuna oil-gas field.

Tuna oil-gas field, located in-between Indonesia and Vietnam, was discovered by an Indonesian branch of UK company Harbour Energy. The investment amounted to $3 billion. Exports are expected to start in 2026, and production is estimated to reach 115 million standard cubic feet per day (MMSCFD) in 2027.

Tuna Bloc is located in Indonesia’s EEZ in its entirety and 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Vietnam’s EEZ. Nonetheless, the Chinese regime claims “historical rights” to waters it outlined in a U-shaped nine-dashed line around the South China Sea on the official map of its territory even though Tuna Bloc is 1,000 miles from China. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague firmly rejected the CCP’s expansive maritime claims as “having no basis in international law” in 2016.

Indonesia renamed the north of its EEZ in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea in 2017, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), while the Chinese regime repudiated the verdict. Providers obtained permission to deploy well drills in the exploration and drilling zone of Tuna Gas field to test storage in 2021. They were monitored by China’s patrol crafts that commanded them to stop drilling and exploration and claimed the area as its own.

CCP Maritime Challenges in South China Sea Undermining International Order

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became a major economic and military power in the world and in recent years, reformed its military expansion in the South China Sea, which deviated from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Declaration on The Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and implemented a series of arbitrary agendas in the South China Sea. The CCP made radical changes over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and took actions that accorded with its reading on the attribution of the Sea.

CCP leader Xi Jinping delivered a report at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (NCCPC) saying that they would push steady progress on construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

On June 21, 2012, the State Council of the CCP constituted the municipal government of Sansha on Woody Island, aiming at jurisdiction over several islands, including the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Islands, and Spratly Islands. The Chinese regime started extensive reclamation on seven of the Spratly Islands in 2013, the so-called “Land blowing and reclamation.”

Three years on, the seven islets were built into large islands. Massive buildings were constructed that included a lighthouse, battalion, powerhouse, radar tower, communications station, and desalination plant.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy, on May 21, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo)

The CCP also built a harbor, airport, hangar, hospital, and sporting grounds for military and civil purposes on Mischief Reef (also known as Panganiban Reef), Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef. They have formed a municipal area which violated the Declaration on The Conduct of Parties in The South China Sea.

It brought South China Sea under the control of the CCP with three artificial islands and expanded Woody Island where Sansha City is located. The islands are equivalent to four unsinkable super-carriers, according to the official statement of the CCP.

In 2018, the regime’s patrol warship and its counterparty remained locked in a stalemate in Vietnam’s EEZ that lasted for months. China’s scientific research ship conducted seismic explorations in disputed waters which  overlap the Vietnamese petroleum area.

In May 2019, a deadlock between China’s scientific research ship and a Malaysian warship, in the latter’s EEZ, lasted for a month in an area close to a Malaysian drill vessel of the state-owned company Petronas and the vessel was under operation.

In April and June 2019, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy warship was seen near Scarborough Shoal (also known as Panatag). The Philippines clashed with the CCP over the disputed area in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and by Beijing. The CCP tried coercing the Philippines into accepting as fait accompli its sovereignty over the area after occupying it by force.

International Situation Changing as the World Started Watching the South China Sea

As a matter of fact, the Chinese regime had adopted strategies of “maintaining the status quo” and “conflict avoidance” for decades in the South China Sea due to limits on its economic and military strength.

In April 1994, an earth and deep-sea research and exploration vessel was seen sailing from Guangzhou to Vanguard Bank to conduct exploration and development of resources. Under Vietnam’s serious obstruction, however, the group had to leave. In May 1997, the CCP patrol warship had to withdraw from an area of Scarborough Reef after a three-day stalemate with the Philippines’ counterparty.

Epoch Times Photo
A protester holds a slogan during a rally outside the Chinese Consulate in the financial district of Makati, in metropolitan Manila, Philippines, to mark Independence Day on June 12, 2019. The Philippine defense secretary says an anchored Filipino fishing boat sunk in the disputed South China Sea after being hit by a suspected Chinese vessel which then abandoned the 22 Filipino crewmen. (Aaron Favila/AP)

Nonetheless, the international situation in the South China Sea is being undermined by the Chinese regime, and the world has expressed deep concerns about it.

On July 13, 2020, in a statement on the U.S. position on maritime claims, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo stated for the first time that “The PRC has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region” and denounced Beijing for bullying Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea out of offshore resources, asserting unilateral dominion, and replacing international law with “might makes right.”

On July 25, 2020, in a statement to the Arbitral Tribunal, Australia rejected the CCP’s claims to “historic rights” and went further to reject claims to “maritime rights and interests” established by “historical practice” as these claims are inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.

Shortly afterwards, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and Vietnam followed up to reject around 90 percent of the CCP’s claims about its sovereignty over waters in the South China Sea.

On Aug. 2, 2021, Germany sent a frigate to the South China Sea for the first time in almost two decades, expanding its military presence in the region. Officials said the German navy will stick to common trade routes. Berlin made it clear the mission would serve to stress the fact that Germany does not accept Beijing’s territorial claims.

On that same day, India’s defense ministry also ordered the deployment of special forces to the South China Sea for a period of two months. The Indian Navy ships were intended to ensure normal order in the maritime domain and “strengthen existing bonds between India and countries of the Indo Pacific.”

In August 2022, China unleashed a show of military maneuvers in the airspace and waters around Taiwan and threatened the island’s territorial waters in retaliation for Taipei’s hosting of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Moreover, it fired missiles into the sea within Japan’s EEZ.

On Nov. 11, 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told Asian leaders at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Cambodia that Beijing had been continuously and increasingly taking actions that infringed on Japan’s sovereignty in the East China Sea and escalated regional tensions, particularly in the South China Sea.

In January 2023, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio held a talk in Washington D.C. Both leaders reaffirmed their shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a peaceful and prosperous world, and the need to check the CCP’s growing challenges.

The South China Sea and the Chinese Regime’s Previous Actions in the Area

The South China Sea, attributed as a geodomain, includes waters on the south of China surrounded by Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Since the independence of countries adjacent to the South China Sea in the 1950s, there has been a dichotomy about the definition of a territorial sea and the rights of countries in different sea areas for a long time.

The United Nations (UN) held conferences that included disputes over the South China Sea. Representatives of the involved countries reached a final agreement in 1982 and signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Convention entered into force on Nov. 16, 1994. China is one of more than 150 countries representing all regions of the world that signed the Convention. UNCLOS is a milestone that serves an international maritime code of conduct that the international community has followed since it came into force. The Convention embodied in one instrument traditional rules for the uses of the oceans and also provided the framework for further development of specific areas of the law of the sea, including archipelago, territorial sea baseline, Exclusive Economic Zone, and the attribution of continental shelf and seabed.

In November 2002, the Chinese regime signed the Declaration on The Conduct of Parties in The South China Sea along with 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. “The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”