South China Sea: China’s Claims and Implications of U.S. Intervention

On Tuesday morning, October 27, 2015 Beijing time, the U.S. Navy conducted an operation in the South China Sea (SCS), sending a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands. The mission, which received approval from President Obama, is the first activity the U.S. military has had in the region since China declared sovereignty over the entire SCS—currently the most highly disputed maritime region in the world. The U.S. declared that this was a routine operation, demonstrating freedom of navigation within international waters, which does not warrant communication with other countries. China, on the other hand, has interpreted this as an opportunity for the U.S. to undermine Chinese sovereignty and security in the region, urging the U.S. to refrain from conducting exercises that provoke instability or a threat to regional peace.

Over the past several years, the SCS has become the most hotly contested region in the world. China has laid claim to the entire sea, demarcating these waters—and their various islands—as an extension of its continental mainland territory. Though China cites historical regional influence and control to justify this claim, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Taiwan each denounce China’s sovereignty, calling on international maritime law to denote respective control.

International Legal Distinctions

Through the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), international maritime law states that countries are free to set laws in and regulate use of up to 12 nautical miles of the waters off its coasts, known as territorial waters. Beyond these territorial waters, countries are given an additional 12 miles, known as the contiguous zone, in which they can enforce laws dealing with customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution. Extending past these 24 miles, countries receive exclusive rights to an Exclusive Economic Zone, providing jurisdiction of up to 200 miles beyond their coasts for exclusive access to the natural resources, fisheries, and trade routes in these territories. Beyond this, remaining maritime territory is designated as international waters.

Map of the SCS, distinguishing the EEZ waters (grey dotted line) of various countries in the region. Despite these UNCLOS-protected distinctions, China claims the entire sea (red dotted line).
Map of the SCS, distinguishing the EEZ waters (grey dotted line) of various countries in the region. Despite these UNCLOS-protected distinctions, China claims the entire sea (red dotted line).

However, with respect to the laws protected under UNCLOS, the SCS is a complex region, filled with many islands, including two prominent chains, the Spratlys and the Paracels. Throughout these island chains, certain islands have been claimed by the various countries represented in the SCS, enabling an undefined demarcation of regional jurisdiction that is hard to designate. To make matters even more complex, China is a signatory of UNCLOS, while the U.S. is not. However, the U.S. upholds the laws of the treaty while China has chosen in these disputes to ignore them. Therefore, as China ignores these laws and expectations, claiming them as erroneous in nature, the U.S. must struggle to uphold consistent and legal arguments to combat China’s actions in the defense of China’s regional neighbors.

China’s Claim and Justification

Yet, China claims that this confusion is not warranted as it declares sovereignty over the entire region. Such a vast claim has, understandably, incited great objection from other countries within this part of Asia. However, perhaps most controversial has been China’s efforts to construct recently established man-made islands throughout the SCS that permit China to enforce its regional sovereignty through land-based designations that justify its claims under international law. China’s neighbors have, of course, denounced these efforts as merely an attempt by China to circumvent the current international system that protects much of these waters. Were the international community to approve of China’s claims, its regional neighbors would control virtually no water in the SCS. This controversial situation in the SCS demonstrates the complexity of international maritime law during the contemporary era, unable to properly distinguish jurisdiction in a geographically unique region.

China has been steadily building and strengthening its naval capabilities
China has been steadily building and strengthening its naval capabilities

As China rapidly expands its military capabilities, with a particular emphasis on the buildup of its navy, the rising giant is demonstrating its increased influence through unwavering insistence on complete sovereignty within the SCS. Tensions are rising in the region, with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors calling on the U.S. to exert naval influence in defense of the UNCLOS-protected protocol, while China has made it abundantly clear through press releases from its foreign ministry that the U.S. should refrain from interfering with the conflict as China is merely protecting its sovereignty and security.

Of course, establishing national sovereignty throughout the seas is an important consideration for these countries as they fight for influence in the SCS. Yet, surely there is more than historical context and modern momentum fueling China’s determined efforts in the region. After all, China is claiming territory as far as 1,200 miles from its southern coasts, certain to antagonize its neighbors and cause regional, and even global, concerns.

Resources, Fisheries, and Trade Routes

Many experts believe China is claiming the SCS in its entirety for the purpose of controlling maritime territory containing natural resources and fisheries, as well as a region that serves as a strategic trade route. While these objectives are likely at the forefront of China’s strategy in the SCS, scientists believe natural resources are existent, but not necessarily abundant, in the region. With an economy that has been rapidly expanding for many years, birthing the rise of a new middle class that has vastly increased China’s energy consumption, sovereign control over additional natural resources would only improve China’s ability to serve its people. Moreover, China’s rapid economic rise has also caused vast over-pollution of its coastal waters, reducing access to seafood for its people. This has surely increased China’s interest in maintaining exclusive access to the relatively untouched fisheries of the SCS. Beyond these incentives, the region is a prominent trade route—likely drawing China in as it seeks to an upper hand in regional trade relations.

Regional Hegemony

Yet, while these considerations surely play an important role in China’s conquest for SCS autonomy, controlling the sizeable body of water also serves, more generally, as a symbol of regional hegemony. China has been a dominant presence in the Eastern Hemisphere since ancient times, with great influence for thousands of years. Famed 15th century Chinese explorer, Zheng He, sailed throughout the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean almost a full century before Columbus stumbled upon North America. Exploring all throughout the coasts of East Asia, India, the Middle East, and East Africa, Zheng frequented the SCS on many voyages—establishing Chinese cultural and economy influence in the region.

Zheng He, the 15th century Chinese explorer who spread Chinese cultural and economic influence into the SCS among other regions of the Eastern hemisphere
Zheng He, the 15th century Chinese explorer who spread Chinese cultural and economic influence into the SCS among other regions of the Eastern hemisphere

China’s modern development—a phase that has enabled an unprecedented rise to global economic and geopolitical influence—has reaffirmed the country as powerhouse. Yet, while many Westerners regard China’s rise as an impressive manifestation of modern development, the Chinese view the past 40 years as a continuation of a briefly interrupted dynamic and influential history. In fact, they interpret 200 years of oppression at the hands of European powers and the Japanese as merely a short slump in a 5,000-year history of domination and pride. This historical context, while more of a symbolic feature than a practical measure in the modern era, certainly does contribute to China’s current play for the SCS.

It is important to understand the history and economic aspects currently motivating China’s interest in the SCS. However, regardless of what is driving China’s SCS policy, the larger issue at present is whether China’s sovereign claim over the region—one that defies international law, antagonizes its neighbors, and concerns a U.S.-led Western interest in maintaining the current global order—will provoke military conflict in the region.

Implications of U.S. Intervention

The U.S. has always considered freedom of navigation a vital national interest. Though the U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS, it accepts and enforces its provisions—ensuring unimpeded passage on the high seas for trade, fishing, oil exploration for countries throughout the world. Though a signatory, China’s current claims impede upon these provisions. Therefore, when the U.S. sent its missile-guided destroyer within 12 miles of Subi Reef, a recently constructed artificial island that serves as a strategic ploy to enable China to claim more territory throughout the SCS, it was the most significant American challenge within the disputed region to date.

China has constructed Subi Reef, a man-made plot of land that serves to circumvent UNCLOS stipulations to strengthen China's claim of the SCS
China has constructed Subi Reef, a man-made plot of land that serves to circumvent UNCLOS stipulations to strengthen China’s claim of the SCS

Beijing has accused the U.S. naval exercise as a deliberate attempt to provoke China through its actions. However, the Obama Administration warned China in advance of its plans, suggesting a carefully drawn out exercise designed to avoid provocation and confrontation. Yet, while the operation was handled diplomatically and gracefully, it certainly does serve as proof that the U.S. will not cave in to Chinese claims that directly contradict international laws and rights. Subi Reef, a body that was submerged until recently, was only built as a measure to extend Chinese autonomy in the region. However, when UNCLOS was conceived and ratified, the reef did not exist. The international community is continuing to observe UNCLOS laws that protect and ensure national sovereignty and freedom navigation based on naturally occurring territory, not artificial land built to circumvent certain stipulations.


This recent exercise demonstrates the U.S. fully intends to safeguard the current laws protected by UNCLOS and will not make an exception for China. One would expect a rapidly growing power to assert influence and advocate for policies that serve its strategic needs. However, China’s continued defiance of UNCLOS-protected laws—as well as its objection to various international legal rulings that oppose many of its claims throughout the region—suggests that its strategic interests disregard current international protocol. Going forward, China’s approach to this disputed region—and to the international court rulings regarding this issue and others—will serve as a clear indicator about whether China’s rise into global hegemony lies on a foundation directed toward guaranteeing global security and peace, or instead a strictly self-interested agenda.

About the author:

David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.

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