Origins of the South China Sea Dispute

  • Thi Lan Anh Nguyen


As with most territorial disputes, the ones that emanate from the South China Sea are extremely complex and multi-layered. The contested status of the territorial features in the sea are rooted in the region’s deep colonial history on one hand, and the legal regime of islands in accordance with international law on the other. The geostrategic importance of these features and the presence of rich natural resources around them have culminated in uneasy tensions in the South China Sea region between multiple states that claim sovereignty over the features. This has been fuelled by domestic politics and the rise of nationalism within certain claimant states. This chapter aims at providing an overview of the various layers that have contributed to the current complexity of the South China Sea dispute. It also highlights the challenges preventing the parties from reaching a resolution of the dispute in the near future. To arrive at this, it will first discuss the early history of the region in the colonial period. It then examines the influence of different factors, such as international law, economics, the geo-strategic significance of features, and the domestic situations in claimant states that trigger the South China Sea dispute.


Dispute Settlement Exclusive Economic Zone Territorial Dispute Claimant State International Crisis Group 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Beckman, R. (11–13 May 2005). Safety of Navigation in the Southeast Asian Seas. Paper presented at the Joint Project Workshop: Security of the Ocean in Asia, 5th Science Council of Asia Conference, Hanoi.Google Scholar
  2. Blanchard, B. (31 December 2012). China Says “Board and Search” Sea Rules Limited to Hainan Coast. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from Reuters: Scholar
  3. Brown, E. (1978). Rockall and the Limits of National Jurisdiction of the UK ☆: Part 1. Marine Policy, 2(3), 181–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brownlie, I. (2003). Principles of Public International Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press (6 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Catley B., & Keliat, M. (1997). Spratlys: The Dispute in the South China Sea. Singapore and Sydney: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  6. Charney J. I. (1999). Rocks Cannot Sustainable Human Habitation. AJIL, 863–877.Google Scholar
  7. Cheng-yi, L. (1997). Taiwan’s South China Sea Policy. Asian Survey, 37(4), 323–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clinton, H. (2 July 2010). Statement of the United State Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the ARF. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from U.S Department of State: Scholar
  9. Declaration, C. (1 December 1943). Retrieved 4 November 2013, from
  10. Dupont, A. (1998). The Environment and Security in Pacific Asia. Adelphi Paper No. 319. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. EIA (Energy Information Administration). (7 February 2013). South China Sea. Retrieved 5 March 2014, from Analysis Briefs: Scholar
  12. FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation). (2011). FAO Yearbook on Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics 2009. Retrieved 4 November 2013, from Scholar
  13. Hancox, D., & Prescott, V. (1995). A Geographical Description of the Spratlys Island and an Account of Hydrographic Surveys amongst those Islands. Maritime Briefings, 1(6).Google Scholar
  14. Hunt, L., Martin, T. R., Rosenwein, B. H., Hsia, R. P.-C., & Smith, B. G. (2005). The Making of the West: People’s and Cultures (2nd ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.Google Scholar
  15. ICG (International Crisis Group). (2012). Stirring up the South China Sea (I). Beijing/Brussels: International Crisis Group.Google Scholar
  16. ICJ (International Court of Justic). (27 June 1986). Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua vs. United States). Retrieved 5 March 2014, from ICJ: Reports of Judgements, Advisory Opinions and Orders: Scholar
  17. ICJ (International Court of Justice). (18 January 1951). Anglo-Norweigen Fisheries Case. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from World Courts: Scholar
  18. ICJ (International Court of Justice). (16 October 1975). Western Sahara: Advisory Opinion. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from Scholar
  19. Jean-Louis. (1837). Notes on the Geography of Cochinchina. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 4(2), 737–745.Google Scholar
  20. Jennings, R. (1963). The Acquisition of Territory in International Law. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Jennings, R., & Watts, A. (1992). Oppenheim’s International Law. Harlow: Longman.Google Scholar
  22. JMFA (Japan Minsitry of Foreign Affairs). (29 September 1972). Joint Communique of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China. Retrieved November 4, 2013, from Scholar
  23. Kelly, T. C. (1999). Vietnam Claims to the Truong Sa Archipelago [Ed. Spratly Islands]. Exploitations in the Southeast Asian Studies, 3(3). Online. Retrieved from http:<
  24. Kivimaki, T. (2002). War or Peace in the South China Sea. Copenhagen: Nias Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kwiatkowska, B., & Soons, A. (1990). Entitlement to Maritime Areas of Rocks which Cannot Sustain Human Habitation or Economic Life of their Own. Netherlands Yearbook of International Law, 21, 139–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Li, X. (3 August 2013). China Sails through “First Island Chain.” Retrieved 5 November 2013, from China Daily:–08/02/content_16863833.htm.Google Scholar
  27. Madrolle, C. (1939). La question de Hai-nan et des Paracels. Foreign Policy, 4(3), 302–312.Google Scholar
  28. Malanczuk, P. (1997). Akehurst’s Modern Introduction to International Law. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Monique, C.-G. (1996). La Souveraineté sur les Archipels Paracels et Spratleys. Paris: l’Harmattan.Google Scholar
  30. Odgaard, L. (2002). Maritime Security Between China and Southeast Asia: Conflict and Cooperation in the Making of Regional Order. London: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  31. OLS (Oceans and Law of the Sea, United Nations). (25 August 2006). Declarations and Statements. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea: Scholar
  32. Potsdam Declaration. (29 July 1945). Retrieved 4 November 2013, from The Japanese Surrender Documents — WWII:
  33. RIAA (Reports of International Arbitration Awards). (4 April, 1928). Island of Palmas Case. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from UN Reports of International Arbitration Awards:–871.pdf.Google Scholar
  34. Samuels, M. (1982). Contest for the South China Sea. New York and London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  35. Schwarzenberger, G. (1957). Title to Territory: Response to a Challenge. The American Journal of International Law, 308–324.Google Scholar
  36. Shaw, M. (2003). International Law (5th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Snyder, S., Glosserman, B., & Cossa, R. A. (August 2001). Confidence Building Measures in the South China Sea, Issues and Insights. Retrieved 4 November 2013, from Pacific Forum CSIS: /publication/issuesin-sightsv01n02.pdf.Google Scholar
  38. Son N. H. (19–21 November 2012). Domestic Politics: the “Under-Current” That Decides the South China Sea. Paper presented at the Fourth International Workshop: “The South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development,” Ho Chi Minh.Google Scholar
  39. Tonnesson, S. (2006). The South China Sea in the Age of European Decline. Modern Asian Studies, 40(1), 1–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Treaty of Peace with Japan. (28 April 1952). Retrieved 5 November 2013, from Taiwan Documents Project:
  41. US Government. (23 July 2012). S.Res. 524 (112th): a Resolution Reaffirming the Strong Support of the United States for the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of … Retrieved 4 March 2013, from Scholar
  42. US Navy. (October 2007). A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from Scholar
  43. UN (United Nations). (14 April 2011). Note from the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the Secretary-Genral of the United Nations. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from United Nations: Scholar
  44. UNCLOS (United National Covention on the Law of the Sea). (10 December 1982). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Overview and Full Text. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from Oceans and Law of the Sea, United Nations: Scholar
  45. Valero, G. M. (1994). Spratly Archipelago Dispute: Is the Question of Sovereignty Still Relevant. Marine Policy, 18(4), 314–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Yoshida, R. (7 November 2012). Beijing’s Senkaku goal: Sub “Safe Haven” in South China Sea. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from The Japan Times: Scholar

Copyright information

© Nguyen Thi Lan Anh 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thi Lan Anh Nguyen

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations