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Home arrow Geography arrow Territorial disputes in the South China Sea : navigating rough waters


The South China Sea is one of the biggest semi-enclosed oceans in the world. Its geostrategic location and resources are factors that individually and in combination make the South China Sea of vital strategic interest to littoral states. The development of the International Law of the Sea with the increasing role of islands in generating maritime zones and the loose effect of other sets of rules in territorial acquisition and dispute settlement further provide incentives for new claims, and block definite settlements for the disputes. Historical developments with the presence of various colonisers and the current influence of big powers as well as the sensitive domestic factors in claimant states have increased the complexity of the dispute. These have together made the South China Sea one of the most complicated territorial and maritime disputes in the world and present challenges to any feasible solution in the foreseeable future.


  • 1. However, no document was found to prove a connection.
  • 2. Statistics from different sources including Monique (1996) and Cheng-yi (1997).
  • 3. See Tonnesson (2006).
  • 4. France previously intended to install a lighthouse in the Paracels in 1899 and carry out a scientific survey in this archipelago. This plan was not implemented due to the lack of finance. See Monique (1996, p. 44: note 4); Samuels (1982); The 1927 survey was conducted by the crew of the SS De Lanessan. Cf. Kelly (1993).
  • 5. This information was recorded in the Official Journal of the France Republic, 26 July 1933, p. 7837.
  • 6. See also in Luu Van Lqi, Cuoc Tranh chap Viet-Trung ve Hai Quan Bao Hoang Sa va Trudng Sa, Ha Noi: Nha xuat ban Cong an Nhan dan, 1995, p. 194 (with a picture of the stone pillar).
  • 7. Although the claim of Brunei took place in the 1980s, it shared the same nature as the claim of Malaysia.
  • 8. See Article 2(f) of the treaty.
  • 9. These modes were described in many text books of international law such as Brownlie (2003), Shaw (2003), Jennings & Watt (1992), and Malanczuk (1997).
  • 10. This definition was clarified in the case of Western Sahara. See Western Sahara, Advisory Opinion, ICJ Reports (1975) para. 79.
  • 11. This requirement was illustrated in interpretation of terminology employed in the special agreement between the Netherlands and the United States in the award of the Island of Palmas case. See RIAA (1928, p. 829).
  • 12. For further information see, Brownlie (2003, p. 138: note 20).
  • 13. Separate opinion of Judge Hsu Mo in the Anglo-Norwegian Fisheries case, see ICJ Reports (1951) para.157.
  • 14. See Article 121 UNCLOS (1982).
  • 15. For a discussion of the difficulty in interpreting this Article, see Charney (1999), and Kwiatkowska and Soons (1990, p. 174); E. D Brown commented on the wording of Article 121(3) and stated that, "in its present form, Article 121(3) appears to be perfect recipe for confusion and conflict." See Brown (1978, p. 206).
  • 16. Notes Verbal of China dated on 14 April 2011. See UN (2011).
  • 17. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei spoke during the press conference on 31 January 2013 to make the remarks after Chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ed Royce, met with the Philippines officials and expressed his view that China should agree to face the Philippines before a UN arbitration tribunal to avoid regional turbulence.
  • 18. See Article 298 of UNCLOS (1982).
  • 19. Declaration made by China after ratification on 25 August 2006, See DOALOS (2006).
  • 20. For example, the reaction of the United States in the Case concerning military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. the United States), (ICJ, 1986).
  • 21 For an example of this view, see Li (2013).
  • 22. For example, the monograph of the Philippines Ministry Defense in 1992 remarked that, "It may be recalled that the territory was used by Japan in World War II as a staging area for the conquest of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Kalayann group is therefore considered vital to the national defense and security of the Philippines. Adversarial occupation of these islands by an unfriendly power will constitute a threat to the national security and territorial integrity of the Philippines" (Catley and Keliat, 1997, p. 98, note: 5). However, these security considerations might have been changed since then. With the development of modern technology, monitoring can be conducted by satellite.
  • 23. For an extensive discussion on the evolution of competing China's worldview that affect the policies and activities of China in the South China Sea dispute, see Son (2012).
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