History of the South China Sea Controversy

The South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways, is a biodiversity hotspot, with rich marine habitats, mangrove forests, and tens of thousands of fish and sponge species. Indeed, experts believe the region has “some of the highest marine biodiversity on the planet, with 571 recognised species of coral reef alone,” according to scientists.  It has been affected by territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Maritime tensions are the result of a number of interconnected disputes that have a cumulative effect. In this case, the desire for natural resources - oil, natural gas, minerals, and fish, to fuel economic expansion is the primary impetus. To protect these resources, the countries in question claim a variety of rocks and islands in the East and South China Seas, as well as the broadest exclusive rights to fish in the water and hydrocarbons and minerals on the seabed. Each state is unique. Each side defends its version of history to bolster its position, and each side acts diplomatically and in other ways to make its claims known.

For decades, the dispute has remained unresolved. But it has recently resurfaced as a flashpoint in China-US relations in Asia. The disputes are mainly over two specific islands i.e., the Paracel Islands and the Spratly islands. Based on various historical and geographic accounts, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia all have separate, often conflicting territorial claims over the sea. More than 80% of the territory is claimed by China, while the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands are claimed by Vietnam. Several altercations followed between various countries however in 2013 under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China (UNCLOS).

Beijing largely avoided taking part in the proceedings and instead resorted to drafting and publicly releasing a position paper challenging the tribunal's jurisdiction. The disputed territory had become increasingly worried about China's alleged plans for the South China Sea since the publication of the nine-dash line - the ill-defined demarcation line utilized by the People's Republic of China (China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) for their claims to the majority of the South China Sea. Finally, when Beijing snatched Scarborough Shoal an island from the Philippines in 2012, it confirmed some of these fears. The Philippines filed a case in the UNCLOS regarding the disputes in 2013.

The Republic of Philippines vs The People’s Republic of China

UNCLOS, which pertains to disputes of the sea was very clear in their decision that China had no claim over the islands. Article 11 of Annex VII of the UNCLOS states that “[t]he award of the arbitral tribunal shall be final and binding and without appeal . . . . It shall be complied with by the parties to the dispute.” However, China has rejected the decision of UNCLOS and stated that the award by the UNCLOS is null and void and it has no binding force. China has also confirmed that the Award is “neither accepted nor recognised” by it. States have a small but growing tradition of refusing to accept or acknowledge the rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), or a tribunal created under UNCLOS, and thus not complying with them.

Impact of the dispute on other countries

The South China Sea Dispute has had a negative impact on the territories involved in the dispute, as well as other countries that trade with them. It is one of the most significant trading routes, and it is critical to resolve the South China Sea conflict so that the country's commerce and economic activities are not hampered. According to a research by Kerem Coşar and Benjamin Thomas of the University of Virginia, major trading economies in the Asia-Pacific area might lose over 12% of their GDP if an escalation restricts commerce along critical waterways in the region.


The reactions in the immediate aftermath suggest that the South China Sea Award would not result in a time of peaceful resolution of the tangled conflicts in the South China Sea. The Award has been roundly criticised by China, and it was not even included in an ASEAN-China joint statement. The Philippines and China have held preparatory talks, which have been very encouraging.

Finally, questions about whether China's denial of the Award has harmed confidence in UNCLOS dispute resolution procedures may be overblown. Following the start of the South China Sea Arbitration, three parties have filed cases with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), and two have filed UNCLOS Annex VII arbitration cases. Many have stated that this move will be to no avail to the parties and the saga of the dispute may continue for ages just like any international dispute.