Thursday, November 17, 2011

South China Sea: A Complex Territorial Dispute

China's territorial disputes stretch from frozen Himalayan mountains to islets between its mainland and Japan, but the complex row over the South China Sea is the most troublesome.

The wrangle is set to dominate this week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali and the wider East Asia Summit which China and the US will also attend. GEOGRAPHY The South China Sea is an area of more than 3,000,000 sq km (1,200,000 square miles) on the western edge of the Pacific, with China and Taiwan to the north, the Philippines to the east, Borneo island to the south, and Vietnam to the west.

It contains hundreds of islets and rocks in the Paracel and Spratly islands, mostly unsuitable for human habitation. SIGNIFICANCE More than one-third of the world's seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas passes through the sea. Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed. CLAIMANTS China and Taiwan both claim the whole of the sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each have often overlapping claims to parts of it. NAME Beijing and most other countries know it as the South China Sea, but Hanoi dubs it the East Sea and earlier this year Manila started referring to the West Philippine Sea. OCCUPATION China has held the whole of the Paracel islands since a conflict with South Vietnam in 1974.

Vietnam controls more Spratly islands than any other claimant, while Brunei has none and the Taiwanese coastguard has a 130-strong garrison on Taiping, the largest of the Spratlys.

The Philippines controls eight of the Spratlys -- approximately the same as China -- plus the separate Scarborough Shoal, while Malaysia has three. INCIDENTS -CHINA/VIETNAM Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on one reef in 1998, leaving 50 Vietnamese sailors dead. Chinese naval vessels have fired on Vietnamese fishing boats in the area.

In May this year Vietnam accused Chinese marine surveillance vessels of cutting an oil survey ship's exploration cables, sparking nationalist protests in Vietnamese cities. INCIDENTS - CHINA/PHILIPPINES In 1995, China began building structures on Mischief Reef, within the Philippines' claimed exclusive economic zone.

This year Manila has accused the Chinese military of firing on Filipino fishermen, laying buoys and harassing an oil exploration vessel in its waters. RESOLUTION ASEAN and China adopted a non-binding "declaration of conduct" in 2002 to discourage hostile acts. But attempts to transform it into a legally binding "code of conduct" have so far eluded agreement.

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