In the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, China has been busy increasing its presence in the South China Sea.

  • What is the Spratly Islands dispute about?

  • What is the Paracel Islands dispute about?

  • Why does China want to control the South China Sea?

UPSC Can list these questions under

GS paper 2 (bilateral regional and global groupings and agreements involving India)

What is the context about?

  • In the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, China has been busy increasing its presence in the South China Sea.
  • This time the focus of its attention are the two disputed archipelagos of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the middle of the South China Sea waters, between the territory of Vietnam and the Philippines.
  • Past week, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries who have also laid claim to the same territory.

What is the Spratly Islands dispute about?

  • There has been an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago and nearby geographical features like corals reefs, cays etc.
  • Since 1968, these nations have engaged in varying kinds of military occupation of the islands and the surrounding waters, that has contained its objections to the use of its maritime waters for commercial fishing.
  • Although the Spratly Islands are largely uninhabited, there is a possibility that they may have large reserves of untapped natural resources.
  • In the 1970s, oil was discovered in neighbouring islands, specifically off the coast of Palawan. This discovery ramped up territorial claims by these countries.

What is the Paracel Islands dispute about?

  • This archipelago is a collection of 130 islands and coral reefs and is located in the South China Sea, almost equidistant from China and Vietnam.
  • Beijing says that references to the Paracel Islands as a part of China sovereign territory can be found in 14th century writings from the Song Dynasty.
  • Vietnam on the other hand, says that historical texts from at least the 15th century show that the islands were a part of its territory.
  • In January 1974, China and Vietnam fought over their territorial disputes after which China took over control of the islands.
  • In retaliation, in 1982, Vietnam said it had extended its administrative powers over these islands.
  • In 1999, Taiwan jumped into the fray laying its claim over the entire archipelago.

Why does China want to control the South China Sea?

  • Control of the South China Sea would allow China to dominate a major trade route through which most of its imported oil flows.
  • It would also allow China to disrupt, or threaten to disrupt, trade shipments to all countries in East and Southeast Asia – as well as deny access to foreign military forces, particularly the United States.
  • The floor of the South China Sea may contain massive oil and natural gas reserves. Sovereignty over the region could give China a level of energy security and independence far beyond what it currently possesses.