USS Fitzgerald transits the South China Sea.
The ongoing cold-war between China and US over construction of military bases and administrative headquarters at islands in the South China Sea has attracted international attention. The region has been highly disputed for many decades. China claims the largest share of territory in the South China Sea, asserting its rights based on a nine-dash line it drew in 1947. It does not adhere to the international protocols set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Google Earth Image: Chinese construction on Spratly Islands
Within the region, there are primarily four locations which are disputed.
Spratly Islands: Spratly Islands is a group of numerous reefs, atolls and islands in the South China Sea. This is the location where China is creating its own artificial base which has been objected to by the US. These islands, however, have been disputed for a long time. Various countries including China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have staked claim to it by claiming historical sovereignty by establishing their military outposts in the region. Unexplored oil & natural gas reserves, immense potential for commercial fishing and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world are the major reasons for the conflict. Almost 50 percent of crude oil shipments pass through the South China Sea.
Paracel Islands: Paracel Islands, called Xisha Islands in Chinese, is another disputed archipelago in the South China Sea. There has been a historical battle for the islands between China and Vietnam based on exclusive economic zone and continental shelf zones. Both countries fought a war in 1974, and China captured the islands, which led to a protest by Vietnam to the United Nations. But China, by the virtue of having its veto power in the UN Security Council, blocked any efforts to bring it up. In July 2012 China formally created Sansha city, an administrative body with its headquarters in the Paracel which it says oversees Chinese territory in the South China Sea.
Macclesfield Bank: Macclesfield Bank is an atoll of reefs and shoals east of Paracel Islands but is submerged completely under the sea. This has been a long standing dispute between China and Philippines, as China has tried to place the bank under its jurisdiction. In 2012, China placed the bank under its controversial Sansha city administration.
Scarborough Shoal: It is a shoal located near Macclesfield Bank. The tensions between China and Philippines started in 2012 when the Philippine Navy apprehended some Chinese fishing vessels in the shoal. Ever since, relations between the two countries have strained. Most Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines due to the standoff over the Scarborough shoal.