News / Asia

Five Nations Claim Disputed Island Chains

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims
Rival Claims

China’s recent establishment of Sansha city, an administrative municipality based on three islands in the South China Sea, has led to increasing tensions in recent weeks over which of six different governments has a legitimate claim to all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel island chains.

The islands and their surrounding waters, uninhabited except for a few troops meant to establish claims to the territory, are rich in natural resources and home to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, making them attractive real estate.

But among the governments of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, which claims are the most valid? What are those claims based on?

China claims all of the islands, saying that for more than 2,000 years, the Chinese people have considered the islands as part of their nation. Beijing also points to a 1947 political map drawn up by the then-Nationalist Kuomintang government that marks all of the islands as its territory.

Vietnam also claims the islands on a historic basis, saying it has occupied the islands at least since the 17th century, before any nation had declared sovereignty over them, giving it a rightful claim to the territory. It points to an 1838 Vietnamese map showing the islands as part of its territory.

But the three other nations - plus Taiwan - each claim parts of the territory based on what is known as UNCLOS, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which says nations can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 nautical miles into the waters surrounding their coastlines. They may also make further claims based on the continental shelf extending from their shores.

Law of the Sea

Dr. Suzette Suarez, director of the Center for International Ocean Law, notes that determining title to a territory is anchored on two factors. “There must be an intentional display of power and effective control, and the exercise of state functions must be peaceful and continuous,” says Suarez.  She says that under UNCLOS, China’s claim doesn’t have any standing, because many features within the line haven’t been continuously occupied and not all of the line is adjacent to a land feature.


After a series of recent clashes between naval vessels and fishermen over fishing rights in the disputed territories, there has been some worry about the possibility of a violent confrontation and further escalation involving China and other claimant states.

One expert at the Council on Foreign Relations was quick to respond to fears that the dispute may spiral out of control. Southeast Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick notes, “I think it’s likely to escalate, but that violent conflict is unlikely. China is quite pragmatic.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of weighing in on the matter, issuing a statement encouraging the claimants to work out a long-delayed code of conduct on the region in negotiations between China and the regional bloc Association of

South East Asian Nations

Some observers say Beijing does not want the 10-member bloc to unify on the matter because China would rather deal with its smaller rival claimants separately.  China says such allegations are Western attempts to stoke mistrust and enmity between China and its neighbors.

If history is any indicator, rival territorial claims in the South China Sea are likely to last far into the future. But at least for the moment, the area is at an uneasy peace.

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