Nuclear War
The South China Sea is a powder-keg for the next big war, say geopolitical pundits. Image Credit: Hugo A. Sanchez/©Gulf News

"Mischief" means "a cause of harm, evil, irritation".

A reef (rock, sand or coral just above or below the sea surface) called Mischief has many other names — it's called Meiji Jaio by China; Panganiban by the Philippines, Meiji Reef by Taiwan; and Da Vahn Khan by Vietnam.

Names and wordings are a big deal in the South China Sea (SCS), also known as the “West Philippine Sea” in Manila and "East Sea" in Ho Chi Minh.

Spread around this 3.5 million kilometre-square are hundreds of natural islets, reefs, atolls, rocks — as well as new man-made islands.

Many of the reefs are naturally above water only at low tide. But Mischief Reef has now been reclaimed into an island, fitted with military installations. It's not the only one.


Number of disputed reefs and islets occupied by five claimant countries.

About 70 other disputed reefs and islets are occupied by five claimant countries. More than 90 outposts are already built on these contested features — some had been expanded recently.

Now, there far too many warships that belong to different countries, with conflicting and overlapping claims in this 3.5-million-square-kilometre basin of bitter bickerings.

USS Wasp F35s 0001
The US Navy amphibious assault USS Wasp seen in the South China Sea carrying an unusually large number of F-35s. In this picture, the flat-top is seen sailing towards Subic Bay in the Philippines for the regular "Balikatan" exercises conducted recently. Image Credit: US Navy photo by Mass Communication

The US Navy alone makes up to 28 "freedom of navigation operations" (Fonops) in the SCS each year — once every two weeks. Other world powers — France, the UK, Australia — have their military regularly sail/fly in the area as part of these Fonops.

SCS is a trigger for the next big war, say geopolitical pundits.

Here’s an explainer:

What are the disputed islands?

In general, there are five groups:

(1) The Senkaku islands, claimed by China, are occupied by Japan. The US and Japan have a security treaty requiring the US to protect all Japanese-administered territory.

(2) The Paracels are claimed by Vietnam and China.

(3) The Spratlys are claimed by six nations — China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

(4) Various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin, between Vietnam and China, are also in dispute.

(5) There are further disputes, including the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands, which many do not regard as part of the South China Sea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews an honor guard before boarding the destroyer Xining at a pier in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province. Image Credit: AP

Why is the South China Sea important?

Up to $5 trillion (Dh18 trillion) worth of global trade passes through this area annually. Many non-claimant states want the South China Sea to remain international waters.

How big is the South China Sea?

Around 3,500,000 square kilometres (1,400,000 mi2). SCS is considere a marginal sea that forms part of the Pacific.


square kilometres (km2) is the estimated area of the South China Sea

marginal sea that forms part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan.

What is freedom of navigation?

Freedom of navigation (FON) is a principle of international law that states ships flying the flag of any sovereign state shall not suffer interference from other states, apart from the exceptions provided for in international law.

This right is now also codified as article 87(1)a of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994.


The year the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force.

Not all UN member states have ratified the convention. The United States has signed, but not ratified the convention (Congress). However, the US enforces the practice.

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File: Chinese dredging vessels purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in this still image from video taken by P-8A Poseidon provided by the US Navy May 21, 2015. Image Credit: Reuters

What are "freedom of navigation operations"?

The militaries of other countries, especially the US and its allies, including France, Britain, Australia, continue to conduct “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops) in the area, regularly confronting the Chinese Navy, which sometimes result in stand-offs.

Even non-claimant countries want SCS to remain international waters.

To promote this, several states, including the United States, France, Britain and Australia, conduct Fonops.

Claimant states are interested in retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas, the strategic control of important shipping lanes — and the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the area they claim.

“Whoever controls the South China Sea,” says a Japanese political strategist, “will gain regional hegemony.”

Why is China reclaiming these islands and building military installations on them?

China claims to have discovered the Spratly Islands during the reign of Han Dynasty — in 2BC. The Qing Dynasty, from the 13th to the 19th century, also marked the islands, according to the Chinese authorities.

China’s nine-dashed line, which first appeared in 1947, is currently used by China to claim the entire South China Sea.

This line claims almost whole of Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal and Paracels.

The nine-dashed line was originally an eleven-dashed line to claim South China Sea first shown on a map published by China in 1947.

Is there really oil and gas in the area?

China claims the whole South China Sea not just because of the islands there. There's massive natural gas and oil deposit, according to a US Geological Survey (USGS) report.

USGS states that there is a 95 per cent chance that the sea holds at least 750 million barrels of oil, a median chance of approximately 2 billion barrels and a 5 per cent probability of over 5 billion barrels.

How many islands are occupied or built on by China?

China claims up to 90 per cent of the South China Sea (SCS). The area it claims includes some of the waters Vietnam claims and areas that four other governments — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan — call their own.

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Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Image Credit: Reuters

Chinese reclamation work is especially upsetting to Vietnam, because China controls the full Paracel island chain, also claimed by Vietnam, and three major islands in the Spratly chain.

China’s island-building work has led to the deployment of military aircraft and radars. 

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese crews had used 1,294 hectares of reclaimed land to help develop coral reefs and atolls under their control, the US Defense Department estimated in 2016.

Subi Reef 02 Spratlys
The Subi Reef, also known as Zhubì Jiāo in China, Zamora Reef in the Philippines and Da Xu Bi in Vietnam, in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It is occupied by China, and has an airstrip of about 3km. It is 26km soutwest of the Philippine-occupied Thitu (Pag-Asa) island. According to AMTI, China’s island-building work has led to the deployment of military aircraft and radars. Image Credit: AMTI

AMTI list shows China has built 7 outposts in the Spratlys. These are:

In the Paracels, China has 20 outposts. These are 

How many are claimed by Vietnam?

SCS is known as the “East Sea” in Vietnam, which calls the Spratlys as “Truong Sa Islands”. The AMTI states that Vietnam has built up 10 small islands in the area since 2017, and occupies 21 features in the Spratlys.


Number of islands build up by Vietnam in SCS since 2017, according to the Asian Maritime Tracking Initiative

Vietnam has held its islands for many years. In addition, the areas where work takes place are close to the Vietnamese mainland. The country avoids military projects that might appear offensive.

Vietnam belongs to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), known for helping its members work out any differences.

Vietnam Spratly Island Spratlys 0224
Vietnam has made significant progress on its land reclamation and upgrades of air infrastructure at Spratly Island. Vietnam has significantly upgraded its sole runway in the South China Sea—at Spratly Island—and constructing new hangars at that feature, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) Image Credit: AMTI

Vietnam’s island claims are also supported by both Japan and the US — who both want to limit Chinese expansion. Japan agreed in 2014 to donate six coast guard vessels to Vietnam.

According to the, the latest islnad was taken a few days after a bloody clash on March 14, 1988 with China at Johnson South Reef. A full list of these features with their names and coordinates was publicised in the April 22, 1988, issue of Nhan Dan, the Vietnamese government’s mouthpiece. They are:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) identified 34 outposts on these 21 features held by Vietnam.

How many are claimed/occupied by Malaysia?

Malaysia occupies at least five features in the disputed Spratly Islands, including the oceanic atoll known as Swallow Reef, where it reportedly has a naval presence.

On December 21, 1979, Malaysia published a new map on its territorial waters and continental shelf boundaries, staking its claims to about a dozen tiny reefs and atolls in the southeastern portion of the Spratly Islands.

These include:

(1) Commodore Reef, (2) Amboyna Cay, (3) Southwest Shoal, (4) Ardasier Breaker, (5) Gloucestere Breakers, (6) Mariveles Reef, (7) Barque Canada Reef, (8) Lizzie Weber Reef, (9) Northeast Shoal, (10) Glasgow Shoal and (11) North Viper Shoal.

Malaysia insisted these islands and reefs are within its proclaimed 200 nautical mile EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and should be under Malaysian jurisdiction.

Malaysia's 1979 new map was protested by China, Vietnam, the Philippines. It also raised disputes with Singapore and Indonesia over some islands and reefs that appeared in this map for the first time.

The Malaysian military occupied Swallow Reef in June 1983 and renamed it Terumbu Layang-Layang or Pulau Layang-Layang, and established a permanent military presence there.

In mid-1990s Malaysia developed the atoll into an island resort as an exercise to enhance its claim over this feature according to the according to

Malaysia has reportedly occupied the following:

Malaysia has also been actively exploiting the oil and gas resources in the Spratlys area it claims, especially the James Shoal (Zengmu Ansha) area and the south Luconia Shoal (Nankang Ansha) area.

How many are occupied by the Philippines?

Between 1970 and 1978, the Philippine moved in to occupy seven features in the Spratlys, with troops stationed on five islands.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wave to the media following a welcome ceremony at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines. Image Credit: AP

Today, there are nine features held by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands:

An aerial view of Pagasa Island (Thitu) in the Spratlys 002021
An aerial view of Pagasa Island (Thitu) in the Spratly Archipelago. Image Credit: File

How many are claimed/occupied by Taiwan?

Itu Aba Island is a rock located in the Spratly Islands. Taiwan took permanent possession of the feature in 1956.

How many are claimed/occupied by Brunei?

Brunei claims the Louisa Reef. 

What would a war over the South China Sea islands be like?

This is a question for today's military strategists to answer. An open conflict, while the least desirable option, could erupt happen any time. That's why there's a need for a code of conduct adhered to by all parties.

The consequences of war would be hard to even imagine given the destructive power of today's sophiscated weaponry in the era of electronic warfare. The militarisation of the islands reclaimed by China, however, remains a new fact on the ground. 

Did China and the US fight a war before over these disputed islands?

No. In the 1960s, China and the US almost went to war over two islands in the Taiwan Strait — Quemoy and Matsu — as the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan both claimed them as part of their national territory.

The conflict was so bitter, it resulted in two crises. Both countries sent troops to the islands. The US thought of using nuclear tactical weapons in the area.

During the standoff, both sides fortunately proceeded cautiously. Then President Richard Nixon decided to open diplomatic relations between the US and China. The standoff came to an abrupt halt. There has since been an amicable understanding about Quemoy and Matsu.

What’s the international community’s stand on the Philippine claims?

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international arbitration tribunal, constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled against the People’s Republic of China’s maritime claims in Philippines v. China.

What is the reaction of China and Taiwan to the PCA ruling?

The People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) stated that they did not recognise the tribunal and insisted that the matter should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with other claimants.

However, the tribunal did not rule on the ownership of the islands or delimit maritime boundaries.

Is the PCA a UN agency?

No. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is an intergovernmental organisation based in The Hague, Netherlands. The PCA is not a court in the traditional sense.

It provides services of arbitral tribunal to resolve disputes that arise out of international agreements between member states, international organisations or private parties.

The cases span a range of legal issues involving territorial and maritime boundaries, sovereignty, human rights, international investment, and international and regional trade. The PCA is constituted through two separate multilateral conventions with a combined membership of 121 states.

While the PCA is not a UN agency, the PCA is an official UN Observer. The Peace Palace was built from 1907 to 1913 for the PCA in The Hague. In addition, the building houses the Hague Academy of International Law, Peace Palace Library and the International Court of Justice.

Code of Conduct: How will they help ease tensions?

The sooner a bilateral or multilateral code of conduct is signed, the better for East Asian neighbours — with its 750 million inhabitants — and China itself.

Otherwise, if the situation remains fluid and unstable, it’s not going to help anyone.

Diplomatic stance as keeping our policy not to yield an inch of our rightful territory. War should be the absolute last resort.

What if China does not adhere to UNCLOS or the PCS arbitration?

Despite the existence of rules, embodied through the UNCLOS, there are limits to these rules. How can the poorly-armed Asean countries impose the rules on nuclear-armed China?

There's an urgent need to move ahead with negotiations, supported by cooler heads and prudence in decision-making among the regional players.

It’s unclear if the big power would use their big weapons — nukes — to resolve the South China Sea dispute. What’s clear is that these islets and — the now-reclaimed islands — are strategic: Whoever has a singular control over the South China Sea gain regional hegemony.

Is there any hope for peaceful settlement?

There are signs the claimant nations do seek to look past their contentious maritime issues. Fortunately, there's been some progress on this front, with Philippine-China talks on joint sea exploration, for example.

5 key takeaways:

  • 1. Words create worlds

When President Duterte said the US is “scared” of the idea of waging a war with China in a dispute over the Spratlys, while his foreign minister (Ted Locsin) claims that China’s reclamation and militarisation of the area were aimed at the US — and not at the Philippines — extra care needs to made in the choice of words before they are spoken. 

  • 2. Provoking a US-China war is lame

No one, especially developing Asean, would have anything to gain from such an horrendous conflict.

When security of the countries comes under direct threat, however, it is incumbent upon every inch of that country to use every ounce of its resource to defend its sovereignty.

  • 3. Be realistic

It would serve the claimants well to be realistic in resolving conflicting claims. International rules are toothless in the face of global power politics. 

The belief that the US, with its mutual defence treaties, would come to the rescue of claimants like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, in a conflict with China should be tempered by present-day security challenges.

China is obviously interested in exploring mineral wealth beneath the disputed areas. Joint exploration agreements for oil and gas development would be a good start. This deserves a closer look, and greater consideration

  • 4. China is a responsible global power

Its recent record shows China has acted patiently, responsibly. In 1997, China waited for Britain to peacefully hand-over HongKong to the mainland — after 156 years. Britain grabbed Hong Kong in 1841 — and used it as a military staging point.

Macau, leased in 1557 to Portual as a trading post, remains a de facto Portuguese colony, although it has since become a Special Administrative Region of China. Beijing did not forcibly take Hong Kong and Macau back, and kept their systems in place — "one country, two systems". China is creating many Hong Kongs and Macaus in the mainland.

As a rising economic giant, China is set become the world's biggest economy, according to Bloomberg. It wants to be seen to be as its best, fuelled by a deep desire to adhere to Confucian tenets — benevolence, uprightness, knowledge, integrity and good manners/correct behaviour/ceremony.

There's no guarantee that China won't break this tradition. Past behaviour does not necessarily mirror future conduct. But eternal vigilance on everyone's, it's been said, is the price of liberty.

  • 5. Neighbours must keep credible deterrence, keep the world engaged

This does not mean that China, or some of its gung-ho generals, are unable or incapable of mischief.

Chinese dynasties did invade Korea (Sui Dynasty) and Vietnam (occupied by Chinese dynasties for 1,000 years). In the late Ming/early Qing dynasty, the Chinese briefly occupied parts of Myanmar. In all these, millions had been killed.

Traditionally, China views South-east Asia as its own backyard, and abhors outside powers (Japan and the US) extending their influence in the region.

Therefore, keeping a credible deterence — though expensive for developing nations — is key to protecting the territorial integrity of neighbouring countries. Moreover, engaging world powers, and advocating a rules-based system would add weight to calls for peaceful settlement of conflicting claims.

FINAL question: Would a US-China war over the South China Sea erupt?

It’s hard to say. It's also easy to think nothing could go wrong. China's "historic" claims to the entire SCS, by any measure, is excessive.

Claimant countries clearly do not accept Chinese hegemony in the area. Meanwhile, China — the dominant power in the region — has given a tacit recognition to its neighbours' claims.

For now, only one thing is clear: The nuclear option, if at all, should never be left to some ego-tripping generals. Civilians would suffer the most in such a horrific scenario.

With heightened presence of warships, however, the volatile situation can only be made more explosive.

Asean countries may not necessarily and immediately become US allies, unless their own security becomes the issue. But in a shooting war, Asean would suffer the most.

Good fences make good neighbours. That's why a code of conduct is immensely helpful to all parties.

Leaders must work out clear rules they can adhere to and which can be enforced.

It also can never be denied: China today has become the world's factory. It leads in AI, computing, construction technology, renewables, electric vehicles. By opening up to the world, China has lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty.

The "Middle Kingdom" today swims in cash: Chinese foreign exchange reserves stood at $3.099 trillion in March, bigger than any other country.

This Chinese miracle offers valuable lessons and benefits for the world.

Here's the broader picture: The list of territorial disputes between nations is long.

Responsible leaders, therefore, must constantly strive to let cooler heads and good reason prevail.

Doing otherwise — or an outright mischief — could trigger a catastrophe beyond what Merriam-Webster could describe.