South China Sea: key moments in a decades-long dispute

Sarah Zheng
·5 min read

Washington has shifted tack and directly rejected Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea, adding to strategic tensions between the major powers.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing’s assertions that it had sovereignty over most of the resource-rich waters were “completely unlawful”, as was its “campaign of bullying” against other claimants to control the waters.

China says it has rights to over 80 per cent of the area, which Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also claim.

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China hit back, saying the US – which is not a claimant – was trying to “sow discord between China and other littoral countries”.

Here are the key moments in the dispute:

1947: The Kuomintang government of China draws up a map with 11 lines claiming most of the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel islands. After the Communists take over in 1949, the newly founded People’s Republic of China revises the claim to a “nine-dash line”, still covering most of the waters.

1994: The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) goes into effect to govern how states can use the seas and its resources. It is ratified by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and China – but not by the US.

2002: In November, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) sign a non-binding declaration on conduct in the South China Sea. It says the parties will resolve their disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including Unclos.

May 2009: China submits a “nine-dash line” map to the United Nations, claiming “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters”.

June 2009: A Chinese submarine collides with a US destroyer, the USS John McCain, near Subic Bay off the coast of the Philippines.

March 2012: China and Vietnam spar over the detention of 21 Vietnamese fishermen near the Paracel Islands.

April 2012: China and the Philippines have a tense stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal after a Philippine warship seeks to stop Chinese fishing vessels there.

2013: The Philippines takes the dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

2015: The United States begins regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea near artificial islands built by China in the Spratlys and Paracels, patrols that Beijing fiercely condemns. According to data from the US Pacific Fleet, the US Navy sails within 12 nautical miles of features claimed by China twice in 2015, rising to nine times last year.

July 12, 2016: The Permanent Court of Arbitration rules against Beijing’s claims to the nine-dash line within the South China Sea, siding with the Philippines on almost all points. Beijing rejects the ruling as having “no binding force”.

June 2019: The Philippines lodges a diplomatic protest with China after an anchored Filipino fishing boat at Reed Bank in the South China Sea is hit and sunk by a Chinese vessel.

July 2019: China and Asean move closer to a long-delayed code of conduct in the South China Sea, after completing a first reading of the text, with hopes it could be finalised by 2021.

September 2019: The US and Asean hold their first joint maritime exercises, including in the South China Sea. Later in September, Beijing claims it “expelled” a US destroyer near the Paracel Islands that the US says was on patrol to challenge China’s excessive claims there.

April 2020: Beijing names 80 geographical features in the Paracel and Spratly Islands to underline its claims there, the first such exercise since 1983. It comes after a Vietnamese fishing boat is sunk after being hit by a Chinese ship near the Paracel Islands.

July 2020: The US Navy sends two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea to conduct exercises, coinciding with five days of drills by China’s military near the Paracel Islands. Vietnam says China’s exercises violated its sovereignty, and the Philippines says they were “highly provocative”.

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