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South China Sea: Context, Actors, Process

Published On March 30, 2015 | Far East

Context of the Conflict

The South China Sea conflict zone represent several disputes involving both maritime boundaries and islands, each of them involved a different collection of countries – Islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracels Islands, the Pratas Islands, Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands between Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The area may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits; however, the estimates are highly varied. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimate that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). In the years following the announcement of the Ministry, the claims regarding the South China Sea islands intensified.

Parties to the Conflict/Actors – People

China and the Philippines – countries – major powers in the international arena.


Officially the People’s Republic of China, a sovereign state in East Asia, the world’s most populous country. It is a single-party state governed by the Chinese Communist Party, with its seat in the capital city of Beijing. It has jurisdiction over 22 provinces, 5 of the regions are autonomous and four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chong Qing) along with two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). Covering approximately 9.6 million square kilometers, China is the world’s second-largest country by land area.

 The Philippines

Officially known as the Republic of the Philippines, is a sovereign island country in Southeast Asia situated in the western Pacific Ocean. It consists of 7,107 islands that are categorized broadly under three main geographical divisions: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Its capital city is Manila while its most populous city is Quezon City; both are part of Metro Manila.

To the north of the Philippines across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan; Vietnam sits West across the South China Sea; Southwest is the island of Borneo across the Sulu Sea, and to the south the Celebes Sea separates it from other islands of Indonesia; while to the east it is bounded by the Philippine Sea and the island-nation of Palau. Its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire and close to the equator makes the Philippines prone to earthquakes and typhoons, but also endows it with abundant natural resources and some of the world’s greatest biodiversity. At approximately 300,000 square kilometers (115,831 sq mi), the Philippines is the 64th-largest country in the world.

What the Conflict is about and why did it erupt? – Problems

A tense standoff between China and the Philippines took place as Beijing demanded that Manila withdraw a coast guard vessel from the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries.

On the one hand, China maintains that the entire South China Sea is an internal Chinese lake and asserts sovereignty over all the islands, islets in the massive waterway.

Chronology of the Conflict – Process

It all began on April 8, 2014, when a Philippine plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats near the shoal. It is said that ever since then, both China and the Philippines have sent ships to the scene. Manila made efforts to “de-escalate the situation” by replacing a war ship with a coast guard vessel. That vessel is now facing off against two Chinese maritime surveillance craft.

The two sides promised to settle the dispute by diplomatic means, but it seems that up to this point, nothing was done. The Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario asked Beijing to submit the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. This International Tribunal is a judicial body established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It seems that Beijing chose to ignore Manila’s request. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has said his country will not risk war with China over Scarborough Shoal, but the only way he can do that is to surrender his country’s claims of sovereignty.

Filipinos, Beijing should know, are not easily intimidated. And they have good reason not to be afraid of their large and belligerent neighbor across the sea. On Monday, the US and the Philippines, long-term treaty partners, began a 12-day joint military exercise in the archipelago nation. Unfortunately, the exercises are necessary. China, by fishing close to the shores of other nations, has precipitated a series of international incidents in the region, some of them deadly. The current standoff with the Philippines will, in all probability, be settled peacefully, but the potential for one of these confrontations to escalate to armed conflict is growing.

Emotions – Beliefs and Culture

Because a conflict is existent between the parties in question, there is a growing mistrust among them. Besides this, each of the parties wants to get a hold of the most power, by gaining its piece of territory. The question of power arises with the desire of each entity to be recognized as an important actor in the international arena. By having more territories, the country in question will benefit from a boost in the economic, political and social levels of life.

The Chinese culture is marked by cuisine, relying on rice as the major food source, along with bean sprouts, cabbage, and scallions. The arts are also very important, being greatly influenced by the country’s spiritual history. It is known that many sculptures and paintings depict spiritual figures of Buddhism.

The Buddhist religion promotes a peaceful way of life. It is a very important part of the Chinese culture, as they develop a great respect for the nature and the environment. On the other hand, the state of calm (Zen) can be easily observed when it comes to the Chinese, as it is regarded as being more than a way of life. Also, the largest festival, also called the Spring Festival marks the beginning of the New Lunar Year. The Chinese have a different system of the zodiac, and the dragon is a very important symbol of power and beauty, encompassing all the aspects that make the Chinese tradition persist in time.

The Philippines – people, are very proud of their culture and food. It seems that these aspects are the central elements of the celebrations. Filipinos are, in general, soft spoken, as they rely on the concepts of peace and calm. In a way, they are mostly like the Chinese, from this point of view, because they are not a population keen on promoting conflict, rather, they want to stick to the stable peace at all times, if possible.


What is at stake? What are they fighting for?

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over the ocean area and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed the whole or in part by a number of countries. It seems that alongside the islands, there are dozens of uninhabited rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks, and reefs. The Nine-Dash Line is the area claimed by China – which covers most of the South China Sea and overlaps the Exclusive Economic Zone in the Philippines (also taking into consideration Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam). Also, the maritime boundary along the Vietnamese coast and the maritime boundary situated North of Borneo


China took an aggressive stand in the conflict, claiming the largest portion of the territory.

On the other hand, the Philippines invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis for its claim for part of the grouping.

It seems that both entities lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal – which is located 100 miles from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

As of 2012, all of the Paracel Islands are under the control of the Chinese. Eight of the Spratly Islands are under Chinese control; Vietnamese troops control the greatest number of the islands. Eventually, the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam, while expressing concern over rising tension in the area, said that 50% of its trade passed through the area and called for the peaceful resolution of the disputes.


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