Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, in this video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircra and provided by the US Navy. Image Credit: REUTERS

Accusations of land reclamation by China in the South China Sea has raised serious concerns about its territorial intentions in the disputed waterbody. While rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, a recent surge in tension has stoked fresh concern that the area is becoming a flashpoint with global consequences.

What are territorial clashes all about?

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Alongside the full-fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.

Why are so many countries interested in the islands?

Although largely uninhabited, the Paracels and the Spratlys may have reserves of natural resources around them. There has been little detailed exploration of the area, so estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighbouring areas. In addition, the Malacca Strait in the area is just 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point. About a third of global shipping moves through the strait, which is about 50,000 ships a year. Any accidental or deliberate blockage of the strait would force ships to switch to longer and more expensive routes.

What are the nine-dash lines?

The nine-dotted or nine-dashed line refer to the demarcation line used initially by the government of the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), and subsequently also by the government of the People’s Republic of China, for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea. The claim encompasses the area of Chinese land reclamation known as the “great wall of sand.” An early map showing a U-shaped 11-dotted line was published in the then Republic of China on December 1, 1947. Two of the dots were later removed, but China is yet to file a formal and specifically defined claim to the area within the dashes.

What does the rest of the world say?

Although China has tended to favour bilateral negotiations in the dispute, other countries want international mediation. But even if the Philippines is successful in its attempts to pursue China at a UN tribunal, China would not be obliged to abide by the ruling. Recent attempts by the regional grouping Asean to discuss new ideas for resolving the dispute appear to have left the bloc severely divided. The US has also warned China not to “elbow aside” the countries it is in conflict with over the islands.

What are the steps the US is planning to take?

In view of the escalation in tension, US defence officials say the country was considering more military flights and patrols closer to the projects in the South China Sea, to emphasise reclaimed lands are not China’s territorial waters. They are also looking at ways to adjust the military exercises in the region to increase US presence if needed. One possibility would be for US ships to travel within 12 miles of the artificial islands, to further make the point that they are not sovereign Chinese land.


Who claims what?

CHINA - It claims the largest portion of territory on the South China Sea – an area deŠfined by the “nine-dash line”
which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from the province of Hainan. According to Beijing, China’s right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts
of the Chinese nation. In 1947, China issued a map showing the two island groups falling entirely within its territory.

TAIWAN - All the Chinese claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

VIETNAM - It has vigorously contested China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the
islands before the 1940s. Instead, Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since
the 17th century and has the documents to prove it.

THE PHILIPPINES - This is the other major claimant in the area and invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly
Islands as the main basis of its claim. Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal, which is
160km from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

MALAYSIA - Malaysia lays claim to territory in the South China Sea that it says falls within their economic exclusion zones. Malaysia says their claim is as defiŠned by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). It also claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.

BRUNEI - While it does not claim any of the disputed islands, Brunei also claims the territory in the South China Sea that falls within its economic exclusion zones


Timeline of disputes

1974 - The Chinese seize the Paracels from Vietnam, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops.

1988 - The two sides clash in the Spratlys, with Vietnam losing about 60 sailors.

2012 - China and the Philippines engage in a lengthy maritime stand-off, accusing each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal.

2012, July - China angers Vietnam and the Philippines when it formally creates Sansha city, an administrative
body with its headquarters in the Paracels which it says oversees Chinese territory in
the South China Sea.

2012 (late) - UnveriŠfied claims emerge that the Chinese navy has sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations. It leads to large anti-China protests on Vietnam’s streets.

2013, January - Manila says it was taking China to a UN tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims.

2014, May - The introduction by China of a drilling rig into waters near the Paracel Islands leads to multiple
collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.

2015, April - Satellite images show China building an airstrip on reclaimed land in the Spratlys.