South China Sea: enough backstory to understand the tension

United Nations determines amount of ocean that belongs to a country

The United Nations has a law that describes a country’s territory as extending 200 miles off its shores. Any trade or resources that fall in this area belong to that country, which means Malaysia, Vietnam, Phillippines, Taiwan and others claim part of the South China Sea. Beyond this are international waters, which no state owns.

China disagrees. They say they have a historical claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, dating back to the 15th century.

why everyone wants SCS islands

Within the South China Sea is a group of islands that are valuable to these countries as they would give the 200-mile-waterway claim to whomever owns the island. Countries have therefore built tiny ports and buildings on islands not much larger than rocks in the middle of the ocean.

China took the idea ever further: they built their own islands. They poured sand over reefs, eventually making them stable enough to hold military bases. When neighboring countries expressed their outrage, the United States got involved, sending the Navy to patrol waters it insists are international.

In an effort to settle these disputes, an international court ruled on China’s claim to the water, rejecting the borders that China mapped out. Their ruling suggest that China needs to abandon its South China Sea claims.

But while the ruling is binding, there is no predetermined way to enforce it. And, China not only boycotted the court proceedings, they disagreed with the verdict.

Why is the South China Sea so desirable?

There is an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the South China Sea.

The waters also contains an estimated 10 percent of the global total of fisheries.

Most importantly, about 30 percent of global maritime trade goods moves through the sea every year.

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