South China Sea is located at the western Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia, south of China, east and south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines and north of the island of Borneo. Surrounded by the east coast of the Malay Peninsula and the southern limit of the Gulf of Thailand. In short, South China Sea is situated in a highly contentious region and it is home to the 2nd most used shipping lane in the world which makes it more appealing for countries to claim a piece of the territory.

Key numbers

  • Total trade passing through the South China Sea in 2016: $3.37 Trillion
  • Percent of global liquefied natural gas trade transited through the South China Sea in 2017: 40%
  • Estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas
Territorial Claims for South China Sea by Various Countries (C) Voice of Americans

Who gets what?

With a label of the 2nd most used shipping lane in the world, it has a high commercial value as a vital route for merchant shipping passing these waters. Beyond shipping, this territory is embedded with significant reserves of unexplored oil and gas, which is the driving factor behind these disputes. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have their own interest and claim territory far beyond the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

What is exclusive economic zone? An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a concept adopted at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1982), whereby a coastal State assumes jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in its adjacent section of the continental shelf, taken to be a band extending 200 miles from the shore.


Among all countries involved in the dispute, China can been seen as aggressor claiming over the South China Sea by actively building infrastructure and sending Navy to patrol in the region. Known as the nine-dash line to demarcate almost the entire sea that Beijing proclaimed to own since 1947, it is often the trigger point that ignites tension with the ASEAN neighbors – including losing an arbitration in an international court and facing backlash from Vietnam and the Philippines.

The conglomerate of South East Asia also opined that Beijing should negotiate with ASEAN as a whole, given the sheer size. This motion, however was rejected by China, while the ASEAN nations have different opinion on how a amicable resolution can be passed.

The Vietnamese-controlled island is in the Spratly Islands chain in the disputed South China Sea (C) Nikkei

The journey to a successful resolution is made more complicated with the involvement of the United States, as it believes the rights in freedom of navigation that will outright challenge China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea.

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