South China Sea Territorial Disputes

Tension boils as the Chinese government seizes control of the islands in the South China Sea

Key Actors:
  • Xi Jinping – Leader of the People’s Republic of China
  • Rodrigo Duterte – President of the Philippines 
  • Mike Pompeo – U.S. Secretary of State

The South China Sea is one of the biggest flashpoints in Asia. It is involved in disputes between several of its neighbors — Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan — while drawing the attention of the United States.

The South China Sea is by far one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping route for trade. Furthermore, the sea holds some of Asia’s vast amounts of oil pockets, hidden beneath seabeds. For decades, it was not clear on who held the sovereignty of the hundreds of tiny islands in this area, along with their corals and surrounding waters. As if already predetermined, China assumed control over all of the islands and islets in the region, even presuming a ‘Nine-dash line’ signifying China’s demarcation line over the vaguely located islands in the South China Sea. This caused many problems with neighboring countries, as each of them claimed a part of the islands. 

Who Dares Poke at the Bear?

China is the dominating power of East Asia, and its trade relations are very influential to its neighbouring countries. The island countries are unwilling to attack for fear of severing these crucial trade relations.As a result, although China had recently made bold moves to claim the islands by building airstrips, military bases, and even a tourist attraction on the islands, some countries remain silent. 

The Philippines, for one, has chosen a conciliatory approach that does not require challenging China’s sovereignty. For years, President Duterte sought to improve diplomatic relations between the two countries by setting up bilateral agreements, ultimately reaping up to US$24 billion in deals since 2016. Furthermore, he wishes to sever the US-Philippines military troop alliance in order to strengthen their relationship with China and thus gain more access to the islands.

U.S. intervention

In the past few decades, the U.S. had made commitments to the safety of South Eastern Asian countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines. Similar to China and its neighboring countries, the South China Sea is a crucial trade nexus for American companies, especially in the global supply chain. The U.S. has not interfered with China’s external affairs, but merely exercised their freedom of navigation in the international waters. Nonetheless,China has criticized the U.S. for acting too “provocatively” and continued to defend their rights for reclaiming the islands.

With the Philippines planning to oust all U.S. military troops out of their country, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, urged the Philippines to reconsider their decision. Pompeo appealed to the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) between the two countries, in which the U.S. promises to protect the Philippines from possible armed vessels or aircraft attack, specifically from the Chinese military. However, the Philippines questioned the terms of the agreement due to the ambiguity of the disputed lands. For the Philippines, the dilemma of satisfying China or the U.S. will definitely be a persistent problem, now and in the near future. 

A Resolution Yet to be Reached

The outburst of territorial disputes in the South China Sea has become a major conflict that may lead to war in Southeast Asia. In July of 2016, the international tribunal hosted in Hague concluded that China has no historical or any other concrete evidence to support their claim of the islands, though China rejected the ruling and claimed it was invalid and had “no binding force.” For now, China will continue to assert its possession of the islands in the South China Sea.


“South China Sea Dispute.” South China Morning Post, 19 Feb. 2019,

“The Philippines’ Shifting Stance towards the South China Sea Dispute.” Global Risk Insights, 15 Apr. 2019,

Gutierrez, Jason. “Philippines Should Take Over Shipyard to Keep It From Chinese, Officials Say.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2019,

Panda, Ankit. “With New South China Sea Tensions With Philippines, China Overplays Its Hand.” The Diplomat, The Diplomat, 15 Apr. 2019,

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