The South China Sea issue appears complicated because of the competing claims of six different governments (the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam
, the Philippines
, and Brunei), the arcane nature of the various historical claims, and the impotence caused by voluntary enforcement of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea UNCLOS). None of the claimants has what would amount to an irrefutable case, at least in terms of modern international law, and so the dispute persists.
The Chinese and Vietnamese claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea are both based on historical claims of discovery and occupation. The Chinese case is better documented, but the extent of the Chinese claims (and particularly the PRC's expansive and undefined "nine-dashed line" claim, which as shown on some maps includes waters, such as Natuna, not generally considered by others to be in the South China Sea) remains ambiguous and contradictory.
The PRC claims all of the Spratly (Nansha) Islands on the basis of its discovery and presence from the period of the Han dynasty
(2nd century BC). The PRC made its first official claim to the Spratly Islands in 1950, less than a year after its foundation, in response to the Philippine claims. The PRC maintains a claim to a U-shaped 'traditional sea boundary line', a broken or dashed line encompassing the majority of the South China Sea. It is unclear precisely what this U-shaped line represents, but it does not appear to be a jurisdictional limit marking the extent of the PRC's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or a claim to historic waters as some analysts have suggested. Instead it seems to be designed to illustrate which islands are claimed by the PRC; that is, all the Spratlys and Paracels
Little attention had been given to sovereignty in the South China Sea, until the 1960s and 1970s, when international oil
companies began prospecting in the region. As speculation about possible hydrocarbon resources has grown, the claimants have scrambled to reinforce their claims, leading to heightened tensions and periodic conflict. Although hydrocarbon potential has been the main focus of the disputants until now, fisheries and other marine
resources, navigational safety
, and strategic and environmental concerns are becoming equally critical issues.
The position of the Chinese government
has direct implications for the freedom of navigation
of America's Navy and Air Force vessels. China's insistence that any warship traversing the South China Sea must first gain permission nullifies the rights of foreign warships to conduct innocent passage*. Furthermore, warships that do traverse territorial waters have severe restrictions applied to their operations.
According to UNCLOS, an EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the low-water line on a country's coast.
The following are some examples as outlined in Article 19 of UNCLOS:
a) Any threat or use of force.
b) Any exercise or practice with weapons of any kind
c) Any act aimed at collecting information.
d) Any act of propaganda
e) The launching, landing or taking on board of any aircraft.
f) The launching, landing or taking on board of any military device.
g) The carrying out of research
Accordingly (C, F, & G - & perhaps A), the Impeccable would not (in my view) have been engaged in "innocent passage".
Then again, maybe they're (PRC) just trouble-making paranoidal maniacs.