The South China Sea

Map of South China Sea

The South China Sea has long been sailed by ships carrying spices and luxuries between China and countries far away. Since 1949 the ‘ownership’ of the area has been disputed by all the neighboring states including China.

It is a vast area south of Hainan Island and Guangdong of about 772,204 sq miles [2,000,000 sq kms]. It would extend Chinese control nearly to the Equator, nearly to the coast of Borneo. There are two regions of very small islands barely above sea level: the Spratly Islands and the Paracels. They are both mainly coral atolls - areas of former coral reef that cap submerged volcanic islands. The shallow waters have been a hazard for boats for centuries and they were only inhabited for brief periods by pirates and fishermen as there are no reliable sources of fresh water. It was an area to be avoided at all costs and maps were of great value to ensure safe navigation.

Paracel Islands 西 Xī shā qún dǎo and (Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese)

Paracel islands, South China Sea, map
Paracel Island map. Image by Central Intelligence Agency available under a Creative Commons License

These are far to the north of the Spratlys and comprise 130 largely barren islands. The Paracels lie on a busy shipping lane and many merchant ships pass close to the islands. They are divided into the eastern Amphitrite group and the western Crescent group. It is home to many sea turtles which are now over collected for food and tortoiseshell. There was early visits by both Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen.

They are claimed by both Vietnam, Taiwan and China although China believes that the North Vietnamese at one time waived their claim. Woody Island is the largest island of the Amphitrite group and has an airstrip with various military facilities. The name ‘Paracel’ comes from the Spanish ‘pracel’ or ‘parcel’ which refers to a shallow, sandy stretch of sea water and this name was used by the Portuguese sailors of the 16th century. The larger islands ‘Duncan’, ‘Drummond’, ‘Money’, ‘Pattle’ and ‘Roberts’ are named after senior executives of the British East India Company. ‘Woody’ island is named because of the many palm trees that grow on it (most of the other islands do not have any vegetation).

In the 16th and 17th century the sea routes through the South China Sea were of great importance. The Spanish and Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and English, all keen to develop trade links with China and Japan. The Selden map of 1608 was one of the most accurate and it was highly prized at the time as it permitted sea captains to plot courses avoiding the perilous shoals.

Spratly Nán shā qún dǎo

Spratly islands, South China Sea, map
Spratly islands map showing occupied features marked with the flags of countries occupying them. Updated 2008. Image by Central Intelligence Agency available under a Creative Commons License Country flags in order: Vietnam, People's Republic, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia country key

The Spratlys are about 600 miles [966 kms] further south and has about 400 islets and reef atolls - none more than a mile long; about 150 of them are named. The total land area is only 1 sqmile [2 sq kms] land spread over 164,093 sq miles [425,000 sq kms] of ocean. It is a collection of rocks and deeps which are very dangerous to shipping. They are named after Richard Spratly (1802-1870) a British whaling captain who sighted and mapped them on 29 March 1843. He was pleased to discover deposits of guano (bird poo) as that was a high value commodity at the time as a rich crop fertilizer. The islands include ‘Ladd Reef’ that was named after Captain Ladd at about the same time. They were previously known as ‘Horsburgh’s Storm Island’ because they were first noted on the map of James Horsburgh , a hydrographer of the British East India Company in 1821. Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and China all have some sort of permanent presence on one or two Spratly islands. Malaysia has developed the Layang Layang island as a tourist resort.

Paracel islands, South China Sea, Quanfu Island
Quanfu Island monument of sovereignty. Image by available under a Creative Commons License

Sovereignty claims to the South China Sea

The map indicates the rough claims on the territory from the neighboring states: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. The rush to make claims seems to have begun in 1945 after the U.S. started treating territorial waters as sovereign territory. The UN Law of the Sea states that if an island has been put to economic use then a nation can claim a special zone around them so there has been a rush to occupy and develop the islands. There are large oil and gas reserves near the Spratlys, as well as abundant fish. Important shipping lanes pass through them to China, Taiwan and Japan so they have strategic importance. China’s claim was made just before the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1947, it is the largest claim - taking the country close to the 5° north latitude. It would make Hainan the largest Chinese province by area. The line of the claim on the map is usually drawn in nine sections and so is called the ‘Nine dash line ’. The South China Sea is not the only area of disputed sovereignty with China, Japan and China continue to posture over the Diaoyu ()/Senkaku islands that lie between Taiwan and Japan.

China's claim

To the Chinese it is the ‘south sea’ ( Nán hǎi) and to Vietnam the ‘east sea’ Biền Đông 匾東. The Chinese claim has been on the basis of ‘historic claims’ under International law. It is based on the inclusion of the islands on historical maps and the finding of Chinese artifacts dating back to the Tang and Song dynasties. In the Ming dynasty Admiral Zhōu Mǎn 滿 (b.1378) took part in Zheng He's famous voyages of exploration (1405-1433). Zhou Man reached the Philippines and Australia. Admiral Hóng Bǎo separated from Zheng He's main fleet at Sumatra and explored the Spice Islands over to Arabia. Zhou Man's map of the South China Sea indicates that the islands were known to the explorers of this time.

In written Chinese documents there is a possible description as ‘1,000 stretches of sand’ Qiān lǐ cháng shā in the Song dynasty book ‘A Description of Foreign Nations’ 诸蕃 Zhū fān zhì (c.1225). A Ming dynasty map also shows the islands as shí xīng shí táng ‘Stone fragments and stone pools’.

In the following period from 1433 to about 1960 the Chinese government had no effective navy and showed little interest in controlling the sea. The South China Sea became the dominion of pirates and merchant traders. In the early 19th century there was about 70,000 pirates on 800 vessels marauding the South China Sea. It was the British occupation of Hong Kong from 1842 onwards that eventually cleared the sea of pirates. In 1849 a generous reward for pirates stimulated many to hunt them down - at £20 for each dead or captured pirate it was an alluring prospect.

Spratly islands, South China Sea
Subi Reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, in May 2015, seen from southwest. Image by United States Navy available under a Creative Commons License

An 1867 British survey found Chinese people in the Spratlys living on turtle shells and eggs but only made viable by regular re-provisioned by boats from Hainan. Official Chinese interest in this area was stimulated in 1900 when German surveyors studied the islands. This led to protests in China and to the emplacement of Chinese flags on some of islands in 1902. Of the two island groups the Paracels are much closer to China and more important strategically. In the Second World War (1937-45) Japan used the Spratlys as a base to attack the Philippines and then on their defeat the effective control of the islands was taken up by the Republican government in Taiwan.

In 1956, a Filipino adventurer Tomás Cloma, claimed part of the islands as his own new country, and called it the ‘Free Territory of Freedomland ’. In 1974 Cloma was arrested and his rights to the islands taken over by the government of the Philippines.

Paracel islands, South China Sea, Paracel battle, Vietnam
The Heritage and Freedom Flag in the Memorial for Battle of the Paracel Islands what was a military engagement between the naval forces of the People's Republic of China and Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in Paracel Islands on January 19, 1974. The battle was an escalation of the Republic of Vietnam Navy's efforts to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the vicinity of some of the Paracels. During the course of the battle, the People's Liberation Army Navy established permanent control over the Crescent Group of the Paracel Islands. Although this result was not part of China's original military objectives, it completed China's control over the Paracels. Image by Huyme available under a Creative Commons License

Conflicts and skirmishes

China in the same year took six Spratly islands from Vietnam by armed force and there was further conflict in 1974 when Vietnamese were driven off the western Paracel islands. In 1984 Deng Xiaoping suggested the idea of ‘joint development’ of South China Sea as the way forward but as this had China as the dominant partner the offer was not taken up. It has also been proposed that a ‘One country two systems’ model similar to Hong Kong and Macau could be applied. In 1988 Fiery Cross Reef ( Yǒng shǔ jiāo) in the Spratlys was built upon by China. [It is named after ‘Fiery Cross’ a British Tea Clipper that sank there on 4th March 1860]. It was then attacked by Viet Nam but repulsed with 72 Vietnamese troops killed and three Vietnamese boats sunk - this can be seen as a continuation of Vietnam-China war of 1979.

Spratly islands, South China Sea, Vietnam
Young Vietnamese residents of Spratly Island. 1 May 2009. Image by Chauha available under a Creative Commons License

The situation escalated in 1992 when China made a declaration about its territorial seas - covering the whole area of the South China Sea or 12 mile radius from all the atolls. The declaration forbade the surfacing of submarines and the passage of surface vessels. As somewhat of a counteraction in 1992 Chevron, an American company was given a contract to look for oil in the South China Sea with potential U.S. military and also tacit Taiwanese support. In recent years Taiwan and the PRC have unofficially worked jointly for Chinese development of the area. By 1994 no oil had been found, however continued exploration led to a Chinese oil rig being installed in the Paracels in 2014. Oil reserves may be as high as 7.7 billion barrels in a very sensitive ecological area.

Spratly islands, South China Sea, map
Sketch map of Tizard Bank, Spratly Islands, South China Sea. Image by ANU College of Asia and the Pacific available under a Creative Commons License

An ASEAN meeting in 1992 produced a declaration that called for the peaceful resolution of the claims. In 1994/95 China took control of ‘Mischief Reef’ in the Spratlys west of Palawan Island and erected shelters. The Philippines naturally objected and threatened military action. The move in 1997 by China at another ASEAN meeting to renounce the use of force has done little to reduce tensions, for very soon, in 1999 the Philippines agreed for the US to increase their naval presence. This came after the U.S. had detected (29/1/1999) the building of a Chinese base on Woody Island (Yongxing) (260 miles east of Da Nang) as a refueling depot for air control of the whole area (including AWACS - airborne warning and control system) . China claimed that this was part of a plan to develop the area for tourism.

South China Sea, conference, vietnam
South China Sea Conference 2015, Viet Nam. Image by Anon available under a Creative Commons License


China's claim is administered from Hainan Island. In 2007 China set up the Sān shā municipality over three Spratly Islands which caused more upset in Vietnam. The Paracels are administered from Woody Island Yǒng xīng dǎo.

In 2016 an International panel rejected China’s claim to ‘Mischief Reef’ in the Spratlys on the basis it was submerged at high tide and ceded it to the Philippines. Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected the decision by the Permanent Court of International Arbitration that ruled the 'nine dash line' was not lawful. On Jan 6th 2016 China successfully carried out test fights of two civilian aircraft from a new airfield on Fiery Cross Reef. In October 2019 Vietnam banned the Dreamworks film 'Abominable' because it has a brief scene showing a map with the 'nine dash line'.

Paracel islands, South China Sea, U.S. navy
SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 15, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) is underway in the South China Sea. George Washington and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. Navy is constantly deployed to preserve peace, protect commerce, and deter aggression through forward presence. Image by U.S. Navy available under a Creative Commons License

More recently on 28 May 2018 two U.S. warships passed close by the Paracel Islands much to the annoyance of the Chinese. The Chinese claimed they did not have permission, while the U.S. disputes the need to have it. Both Chinese and America continue to carry out naval exercises in the area. The U.S. is still heavily involved in the defense of both Taiwan and the Philippines (see our One China Policy page). Britain has indicated its brand new aircraft carrier the Queen Elizabeth will take part in them.

Only time will tell if some sort of amicable agreement can be reached over the control and development over the this huge area of ocean and its many islands.

Google map of South China Sea
Bing map of South China Sea

See also