March 10, 2009 / 8:04 AM / 11 years ago

FACTBOX-South China Sea's disputed maritime borders

* For related story, click on [ID:nPEK355447]

March 10 - China rejected accusations that its vessels had harassed a U.S. naval ship, saying the USNS Impeccable had been carrying out an illegal survey off the southern island of Hainan, a Hong Kong television website said on Tuesday.

Here are five facts on the sea, the maritime rules governing its waters, and major players embroiled in disputes within it.


The South China Sea is 648,000 sq miles (1.7 million sq km), containing more than 200 mostly uninhabitable small islands, rocks and reefs. It borders China and Taiwan to the north, Vietnam to the west, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Singapore to the south and southwest, and the Philippines to the east.


The shortest route between the Pacific and Indian oceans, it has some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Over half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes through it. Most shipping is of raw materials, such as crude oil from the Gulf, to East Asian countries. The sea is also said to hold valuable fishing grounds, and as-yet unexploited oil and natural gas fields.


Six parties are involved in a complex set of historically based territorial disputes in the sea -- Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China's claims, the broadest, cover all of the Spratly and Paracel islands and most of the South China Sea. The sea's biggest military skirmishes occurred in 1974, when China attacked and captured the western Paracels from Vietnam, and in 1988, when China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle near the Spratly reefs, in which more than 70 Vietnamese sailors died.


The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows coastal states to establish sovereignty over two areas: 1. Territorial seas -- adjacent waters spanning a maximum of 12 nautical-miles (22 km) from their coastlines, including the coastline of offshore islands, and 2. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) -- extending 200 nautical miles from the coast. UNCLOS says overlapping claims should be resolved through ad hoc arbitration or submission to international courts.


The U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS, objecting to a clause on seabed mineral exploration. But when accused by China of illegal trespass, it has referred to its provision for states to conduct intelligence-gathering activities in EEZ's. U.S. surveillance aircraft and ships have long conducted surveys in the sea. The country's main security concern in the area is keeping open the sea routes that are vital for commercial shipping and warships.


China has signed and ratified UNCLOS.

-- For a timeline of skirmishes between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea, click on [ID:nSP466037])

Source: Reuters, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, (here erview_convention.htm) (Writing by Gillian Murdoch; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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