Fighting In and Over the South China Sea

The South China Sea extends some 900 miles westward from the Philippines to Vietnam and stretches from China in the north to Borneo in the south. It hosts major global shipping lanes, valuable fishing, and prospective oil beds. This potential wealth, combined with a scattering of small, unpopulated islands, creates a perfect recipe for territorial disputes.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines all claim overlapping portions of the region, as do Singapore and both Chinas. The result has been a flurry of activity in recent years, including a steady arms race and a collection of strange public works projects.

Why invest in these tiny, scattered islands? A partial answer is found in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This agreement went into effect in 1994, setting guidelines for the management of undersea resources. As a general rule it defines territorial waters as those within twelve nautical miles of a nation’s coastline. A state can also claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, within which it holds authority over natural resources, including fishing, minerals, and oil.

Such a convention is entirely dependent on two factors: active multinational enforcement and clear ownership of relevant coastlines. Neither is assured in the South China Sea.

In the case of the Spratly Islands, directly to the west of the Philippines, multiple fisheries and the possibility of undersea oil have drawn the attention of Manila and Beijing, among others.

Both capitals are well aware that possessing the islands and submerged reefs constitutes nine-tenths of sovereignty over them and the surrounding waters. For the other tenth, they turn to history, dueling map exhibitions, and international bodies.

Though they are existentially at odds, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) agree on an historical precedent that cedes them nearly the entire South China Sea. They point out that Chinese vessels explored the region during the Han Dynasty (second century BC) and that, centuries before the Europeans set sail, Chinese traders had dealings as far south as the Spratlys.

With the elimination of Japan as a regional power after World War II, Nationalist China saw an opportunity to solidify its claim, sending ships to occupy the Paracels, Pratas, and Spratlys. In 1947 it unveiled a map depicting an “eleven-dash-line,” asserting the full extent of Chinese territory in the South China Sea. In the 1950s, Communist China revised the U-shaped boundary to a “nine-dash-line,” in a friendly gesture to Vietnam.

UNCLOS-mandated Exclusive Economic Zones overlaid against the nine-dash line.

The dashed line has ever after formed the basis for both Chinas’ claims, and Beijing has commissioned exhibitions of documents and maps to prove its point. In response, rival nations like the Philippines have hosted competing displays.

Cartography aside, the line runs afoul of UNCLOS guidelines, which would leave much of the sea, including the Spratlys, out of China’s bounds.

Sensitive to this fact, China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over specific island groups and their corresponding territorial waters. Beijing has even organized the Spratlys and other islands into the large, diffuse prefecture of Sansha, complete with its own legislature on Yongxing Island.

Map of the Spratlys.

On Palawan Island, over 600 miles southeast of Yongxing, a Filipino mayor presides over Kalayaan, a municipality that also encompasses the Spratlys. The Philippine claim originates with Tomas Cloma, a wealthy Filipino businessman who allegedly discovered a subgroup of the Spratlys in 1947, dubbing them “Freedomland.” Imprisoned by the Marcos regime in 1974, Cloma ceded Freedomland to the Philippines for one peso.

In subsequent years, the Spratlys saw the addition of Vietnamese and Malaysian outposts alongside those from China, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Mediators within ASEAN have continually tried to establish a “Code of Conduct” for the region to defuse tensions and preserve peaceful solutions. Meanwhile, a growing number of land reclamations, airstrips, and research stations have popped up at sea level, and tensions have continued to grow, not least between Beijing and Manila.

In February 1995, less than three years after the closure of American bases at Clark and Subic, China suddenly occupied Mischief Reef, arguably within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.

The Chinese began pouring concrete pylons on the reef before diplomatic pressure from the Philippines and ASEAN helped to secure a hiatus. China eventually resumed construction, however, and in 1999 it completed several concrete buildings that were ostensibly shelters for Chinese fishermen.

Within months, the Philippine Senate voted to approve a new Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States. The VFA eased the transit of American military aircraft and vessels through the Philippines and exempted American military personnel from visa requirements. Controversially, it also allowed the U.S. military to retain jurisdiction over servicemen accused of violating Philippine law.

It was hardly a coincidence that 1999 also saw the resumption of Fil-American military exercises.

The next turning point came in the Scarborough Shoal, 140 miles west of Luzon and 500 miles southeast of Hong Kong.

On several occasions in the 1990s, the Philippine Navy had expelled Chinese vessels in the shoal and detained their crews. By 2012, it was China’s turn to assert itself.

That April a Philippine warship attempted to detain several Chinese crews for illegal fishing, but Chinese surveillance ships blocked them from doing so. The Philippine vessel withdrew in accordance with a U.S.-brokered deal, but the Chinese ships remained. Within a few months, the Chinese erected a barrier to keep ships out of the shoal interior and effectively boxed the Philippines out of the area.

The Scarborough Shoal standoff immediately evoked nationalist displays.

In June 2012, President Aquino made official the name “West Philippine Sea,” while anti-Chinese boycotts harked back to the nationalistic stirrings of the turn of the century.

But a longstanding focus on internal security, combined with years of reduced military aid, left Manila in no condition to face down China. Rusting Philippine Navy vessels sat in the Spratlys, their crews watching ever more Chinese Coast Guard cutters and fishing boats pass by. As President Aquino was keen to point out, he didn’t even have a fighter jet to deploy.

Unwilling to apply force, Manila turned to the United Nations.

On January 22, 2013, the Philippines filed a request for arbitration in The Hague, arguing that China’s “nine-dash-line” violated its Exclusive Economic Zone, pursuant to UNCLOS. Ironically, the United States— which never ratified UNCLOS—applauded the move, while China—an UNCLOS signatory—rejected in advance any decision, arguing that the tribunal had no jurisdiction over questions of sovereignty.

A more immediate upshot was a rapid improvement in Fil-American military relations. During the standoff, requests for military aid began flowing once more from Manila to Washington.

Less than two years later, in April 2014, came the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and President Obama’s visit. The U.S. military gained greater long-term access to Philippine installations and was authorized to “pre-position” military and humanitarian supplies on Philippine soil. Undoubtedly, massive American assistance after Supertyphoon Yolanda (also called Typhoon Haiyan) in November 2014 helped make the agreement more palatable, but the major motivation for it lay in the South China Sea.

While this recent strengthening of Fil-American relations is certainly in line with President Obama’s “ Asia pivot,” it marks a return to the twentieth-century norm of close collaboration that began in the American Period.

It also lends credence to the suggestion, supported by opinion polls, that Filipinos ultimately see an American presence more as a benefit than as a threat.

Philippine and US Navy ships conducting exercises in the South China Sea, 2010.

Meanwhile, tensions in the South China Sea fit well in the long history of the Philippines as a crossroads. Just as the West saw the archipelago as a stepping stone to Asia, now neighboring countries eye the Spratlys and other islands as the key to wealth, prestige, and regional stability. The future of the Philippines will be tied closely to developments off its western shore.

In other words, perhaps my tour guide had a point.


The opinions, views, and conclusions expressed or implied in this paper are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.