The source of the South China Seas dispute is traceable to the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, which failed to stipulate possession of the Spratly islands when Japan lost its title to them after defeat in the Second World War (art. 2 (f): "Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands"). The chain of 200 islets, coral reefs and sea mounts that constitute the Spratly and its northern extension the Paracel islands spread across 250,000 square kilometres of the South China Sea, a vast continental shelf that constitutes a potentially rich source of oil and natural gas. The Spratly’s contested ownership developed into an international conflict when from the mid-1970s a number of claimants began extracting resources from the seabed contiguous to their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all laid claim and/or occupied part of the islands in the South China Sea.
China's land reclamation activities have been met with protest from several of the interested states, particularly the Philippines, the United States, Vietnam and Indonesia. China has proposed joint development as a provisional measure before settlement of sovereignty disputes. Sound in principle, most other claimants consider the presumption the nine-dash line would be the starting point of negotiations for joint development as fundamentally unfair. That line contradicts a cardinal principle of UNCLOS, to which all claimants are parties, namely that “the land dominates the sea”, so a coastal state can claim maritime zones based only on land over which it has sovereignty.
The United States has sought to uphold freedom of navigation and support other nations in Southeast Asia that have been affected by China’s assertive territorial claims and land reclamation efforts. According to the United States, countries should have freedom of navigation through EEZs in the sea and are not required to notify claimants of military activities; the United States encourages all claimants to conform their maritime claims to international law and challenges excessive maritime claims through U.S. diplomatic protests and operational activities. Read more, please click here
Research guide South China Sea
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