Origin of China’s claim to the South China Sea

By Taddeo Bwambale

The vast sea is encircled by a chain of small islands claimed by China, albeit with competing claims from neighbours including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

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The South China Sea stretches about 1.4 million square miles, linking the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It is a critical shipping channel with half the world’s merchant ships passing through it.

The vast sea is encircled by a chain of small islands claimed by China, albeit with competing claims from neighbours including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In an interview with journalists on the sidelines of the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum in Zhejiang Province, Lin Songtian, the head of African affairs at China’s foreign affairs ministry, sought to offer insight into the history of china’s claim to the contested islands.

“The islands in the South China Sea, including the Nansha Islands, have been within Chinese territory since ancient times,” Songtian says.

“China was the first country in history to discover, name and exercise jurisdiction over them through administrative management.”

Japan occupied Nansha Islands during the Second World War. According to Songtian, after the war, China sent warships to recover the islands and asserted sovereignty over them.

“In 1948, the Chinese government officially announced a nine-dash line along the islands. For a pretty long period after the war, major powers including the US, Japan, Soviet Union and France acknowledged in different ways that Nansha Islands belong to China,” Songtian narrates.

Overlapping claims

Vietnam claims it has ruled over island chains known as the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century and says it has evidence to prove its position.

The Philippines bases its claims on its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands and quotes the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea.

China and the Philippines both claim the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China), while Malaysia and Brunei say part of the sea lies within their economic exclusion zones.

“Nansha Islands have never been within Philippine territory,” Songtian insists, stating that this is acknowledged in a number of international treaties and conventions.

He cites the 1898 Treaty of Paris signed between the Kingdom of Spain and the US for the cessation of outlying islands of the Phillipines in 1900.

In 1930, the US and UK signed another convention delimiting the boundary between the Philippine Archipelago and the state of North Borneo.

“The relevant treaties expressly define that the west limit of the Philippine territory is 118 degrees east longitude,” Songtian maintains.

He explains that after independence, Philippines’ domestic laws reaffirmed the countries territorial limits in line with the treaties.

Songtian acknowledges this as the spark started in the 1970s after the discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas in waters surrounding the islands.

The Philippines, he says, started sending its troops to the islands and later docked a ship in the contested waters, under the guise that the vessel had malfunctioned.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the South China Sea has an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.


In 2013, the Philippines filed a case before a UN tribunal to challenge China’s claims over islands and seeking declaration.

The highly-anticipated ruling is due to be made either this month or in June, although China maintains it will not respect the outcome.

Songtian says China has no plans to back down on its territorial sovereignty and claims a flawed arbitration process since the case was filed unilaterally by Philippines instead of both parties.

Instead, China says it supports peaceful settlement through the Declaration of Parties in the South China Sea signed by 10 ASEAN countries, to which the Philippines is a member. 


Songtian accuses the US of fanning conflict in the South China Sea by sending military equipment and conducting freedom of navigation exercises with the Philippines.

Last year, US forces flew a Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft and a B-52 bomber over China’s disputed territory in the South China Sea.

US forces have also conducted ‘freedom of navigation operations’ with the Philippines near the Nansha Islands and sent guided-missile destroyers within 12 nautical miles of contested islands.

Last month, US Defense Secretary, Ash Carter visited aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the South China in what was termed as American commitment to peace and security in the region.

“All those actions are nothing but military provocation,” he warns, insisting that China will be prepared to defend its territory at all costs.

Although a full scale war over the South China Sea is almost unlikely, tensions have been mounting and analysts warn that recent encounters could spark confrontation.

“We still hope that the dispute will be addressed through peaceful means. I don't think there will be a war in South China Sea,” Songtian says.