The disputes occur at the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, and also extending to Indonesia's Natuna Islands and the Gulf of Tonkin. Five trillion dollars worth of shipborne goods pass through this area yearly, thus concerning the international community. There have been tensions in the area recently, namely when China occupied the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012 and the ramming of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in May 2014. This has caused the United States to deploy more of its troops, ships, and aircraft in the region; establish an Enhanced Cooperation Defense Agreement with the Philippines, and lifting the arms embargo against Vietnam. Japan has also stated that upon reinterpreting its constitution, the JSDF could now be mobilized to come to the defense of their allies as a form of "collective self-defense." Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, and the United Kingdom have also been involved in the area by sending ships to patrol the South China Sea similar to the "freedom of navigation" operations similar to the U.S.
The South China Sea in ancient times was a trade route for Chinese merchants engaging in barter towards the islands of Southeast Asia. Its role would be the same when Western Powers controlled half of the globe. Galleon trade was known to pass through the South China Sea. In World War II, the islands in the South China Sea were occupied by the Empire of Japan. The Empire would relinquish its control following its defeat at the hands of the Allied Powers.
From the late 40s to early 70s, the maritime states located in the South China Sea would reinforce their claims on the islets, reefs, banks, and shoals. In 1974, China seized the Paracel Islands from the Republic of Vietnam. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which succeeded the former in 1975, would continue to claim the islands as theirs. China and Vietnam would clash again in 1988 over the Johnson Reef, resulting in the reef falling to Chinese administration. The Philippines would have its first stand-off with China not seen since the Korean War in 1995 when China built manmade structures on Mischief Reef. Initially, the Philippine Navy wanted to destroy the structures but decided not to for fears of an escalating conflict with China. In order to reinforce their claims, the Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal.
From the 2000s to the early 2010s, the area would be seen where many fishermen, poachers, and local Coast Guard units would chase each other and apprehend violators. Recent tensions began in April 2012 when the Philippine Navy was blocked by China Marine Service ships from apprehending poachers near the Scarborough Shoal. After a three month standoff, the Philippines withdrew and China seized control of the shoal. It was on January 2013 that the Philippines filed a case to the UN High Court in the Hague, Netherlands. China repeatedly insisted it would not take part of the arbitration. A year later in March 2014, a Philippine government vessel successfully resupplied the BRP Sierra Madre having evaded harassment from a larger China Coast Guard vessel. In June 2014, relations between China and Vietnam reached an all-time low when a CCG vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands. This caused anti-China riots in Vietnam, killing three Chinese workers in the country. In August 2014, a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon was dangerously intercepted by a Chinese jet in a similar fashion to the Hainan Island incident in 2001.
China would start reclaiming the reefs in 2015, drawing international condemnation and concern. This led the United States Navy to deploy the USS Lassen missile guided destroyer near the Chinese reclaimed islands on October 28, 2015 - as to show the U.S. will sail or fly where international law permits. By April 19, 2016, the U.S. Air Force patrolled the area using two HH-60 Pavehawk Helicopters and four A-10 Thunderbolt gunships as part of the BALIKATAN 2016 exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines. The USS John C. Stennis and her carrier group sailed through the same area on the same month.
On July 12, 2016, the UN arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines. It found that China had violated the sovereignty of the country. Despite this, China continues to control the Scarborough Shoal as seen from the video shot by an ABS-CBN crew in which a China Coast Guard RHIB warns the Philippine government vessel to leave.
The Duterte administration has sought rapprochement with China regarding the issue. A visit to Beijing, China in October 2016 has significantly warmed up relations. In response to the visit, the China Coast Guard opened Scarborough Shoal to Filipino fishermen for the first time since 2012. On October 22, 2016, the U.S. Navy sent the USS Decatur to show China it does not recognized its claims.
Occupied Territory (June 2016)
Brunei does not have military garrisons on it's claims. In 1984, the country stated that the Southern portions of the Spratly Islands belonged to it's EEZ. The sultanate has a claim on Louisa Reef, which is occupied by Malaysia.
- Cuarteron Reef
- Fiery Cross Reef
- Gaven Reefs
- Johnson Reef South (site of naval skirmish in 1988)
- Mischief Reef (seized from the Philippines in 1995)
- Paracel Islands (occupied from Republic of Vietnam since 1974)
- Scarborough Shoal (occupied since July 2012)
- Subi Reef
While Indonesia does not have a claim in the disputed Spratly islands, the Natuna Islands are within its sovereign territory. The country has stated that it will not take sides in the dispute, stating the all parties involved must solve the dispute diplomatically. However, in recent years, fishing boats and China Coast Guard Vessels enter near Natuna Islands. The 9-dash line also covers the Natuna Islands. This has prompted Indonesia to beef up patrols and establishing additional defense within the area. In 2015, Indonesia sank fishing boats coming from the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China for fishing near its EEZ. In June 2016, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the Natuna Islands onboard the Indonesian Navy ship RKI Imam Bonjol.
- Ardaiser Reef
- Dallas Reef
- Erica Reef
- Investigator Shoal
- Louisa Reef (claimed by Brunei)
- Mariveles Reef
- Swallow Reef
- Commodore Reef
- Flat Island
- Irving Reef
- Lankiam Cay
- Nanshan Island (Lawak Island)
- Northeast Cay
- Second Thomas Shoal
- Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island)
- West York Island
- Itu Aba Island
- Taiping Island
- Zhongzhou Reef
- Amboyna Cay
- Collins Reef
- Grainger Bank (Prince of Wales Bank, Alexandra Bank)
- Ladd Reef
- London Reefs (West, Central, and East Reef)
- Namyit Island
- Prince Consort Bank
- Rifleman Reef (Bombay Castle, Driena Shoal, Kingston Shoal)
- Sand Cay
- Spratly Island
- Southwest Cay (seized from the Philippines in 1975)
- Sin Cowe Island
- Vanguard Bank
- Senkaku Islands dispute: A dispute between China and Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.