Competing Claims in the South China Sea


The U.S. Navy has put a spotlight on longstanding disputes in the South China Sea. (USA Today)

Use today’s MapMaker Interactive map to chart overlapping territorial disputes in these resource-rich waters.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including today’s MapMaker Interactive map.

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Discussion Ideas
For reference, the good folks at the Council on Foreign Relations have put together a fantastic feature on China’s maritime disputes, including maps, media, timelines, and policy options. They also have standards-aligned educational resources if you want to dig deeper into the issue.

  • Why have Chinese officials criticized what the U.S. calls “routine operations” in the South China Sea?
    • A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Lassen, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef. China claims a 12-nautical-mile sovereignty zone around the reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands.
  • Why are China’s claims of sovereignty controversial?
    • The Spratly archipelago is strictly outside China’s exclusive economic zone, and China has constructed artificial islands and expansions around the atolls. China says the new islands have rescue and environmental uses, but critics say they will strengthen China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
  • Why is this such a disputed body of water? Read through the Council on Foreign Relations feature for some help.
    • There are actually two areas of conflict. In the words of Shen Dingli (interviewed in the CFR video here), disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea are very different. The “East China Sea [dispute] is more political. . . For the South China Sea, it’s about economics.”
    • Historic Claims. China and Japan been claiming sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea for hundreds of years.
    • Trade. The South China Sea contains some of the busiest, most lucrative shipping lanes in the world. According to the White House, $5.3 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea every year—that’s a whopping 23% of U.S. trade.
    • Energy Resources. There are untapped reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the South China Sea. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the region.
    • Fisheries. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and China all have multi-million dollar fishing fleets in the tropical waters of the South China Sea. Even Indonesia, which has not yet entered the regional dispute, may seek to assert its position as a “global maritime nexus” by protecting its fisheries from foreign ships.


USA Today: Navy destroyer sails near disputed Chinese islands

Nat Geo: South China Sea Dispute map

Nat Geo: Pixel by Pixel, Taiwan Maps its Maritime Claims

Council on Foreign Relations: China’s Maritime Disputes

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