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South China Sea Claims

South China Sea Background Note

By Fraser Cameron, Director

4 July 2013


The South China Sea channels a third of the world’s shipping and is rich with islands, fisheries, oil and gas deposits. It is also one the most disputed areas in Southeast Asia and has the most potential for armed conflict. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made overlapping territorial claims to these waters, as well as to some of the islands and rocky outcrops in them such as the Paracels and the Spratly Islands. Small naval confrontations and skirmishes between official vessels and fishing boats of various countries have become commonplace. 

Maritime tensions stem from several, linked disputes that are cumulative in their effect. The principal driver is the quest of all countries for natural resources to fuel economic growth, in this case oil, natural gas, minerals, and fish. To secure those resources the countries concerned claim various rocks and islands in the East and South China Seas, and the broadest exclusive rights to exploit fish in the sea and hydrocarbons and minerals in the seabed. Each state defends its version of history to fortify its case and each acts diplomatically and in other ways to assert its claims. Nationalistic publics push governments to be firm in protecting these national interests. In recent years, there have been numerous dangerous incidents in the region.


The full background note can be consulted in .pdf-format below.

South China Sea Background Note