2011-06-01 (China Military News cited from China Briefing and written by Shelly Zhao) — Territorial issues in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) have gained more attention recently, prompting questions about China’s intentions in the region. Why are these territorial disputes significant, and what are the prospects for future cooperation? Both the SCS and ECS are geopolitically significant and represent an intersection of history, sovereignty and territory, geostrategy, and energy security, impacting China’s relations with its neighbors. This article looks at three major territorial disputes in China’s surrounding waters and discusses the concerns for regional cooperation and stability.
Territorial and maritime sovereignty
Two main areas of dispute are important for distinction: territorial sovereignty and maritime sovereignty. Territorial sovereignty disputes concern claims of rightful ownership of the land itself and usually refers to historical presence in determining rightful control. Maritime boundary disputes relate to the territorial delimitations allowed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III).
UNCLOS specified a 12 nautical mile territorial sovereignty boundary from a nation’s coastline, as well as a 200 nautical mile creation of exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which includes the seabed resources within that sphere from the shoreline. This is significant because the country who has sovereignty over the islands would also own the natural resources in the surrounding area. The untapped oil and gas deposits surrounding the islands make them geopolitically significant.
South China Sea: Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands
Two major territorial disputes in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. The remaining South China Sea disputes are the Macclesfield Bank (PRC, Taiwan, and Philippines), the Scarborough Shoal (PRC, Taiwan, and the Philippines), and Pratas Island (PRC and Taiwan). The table below gives an overview of the Spratly and Paracel territorial conflicts in brief:
Located south of China, southeast of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, and north of Malaysia, the Spratly Islands have been disputed among several countries since 1988. There have been a number of confrontations and China has clashed with both Vietnam and the Philippines over the region. A turning point occurred with the 1995 Mischief Reef incident where China’s PLA Navy built an installation on Mischief Reef, resulting in a confrontation between China and the Philippines. To China’s surprise, ASEAN gave a united condemnation of their actions. In the past decade, the Spratly Islands conflict has become more institutionalized into ASEAN.