In the past week, both the United States and Australia rejected large parts of China’s extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea, as well as territorial claims by any state to undersea reefs. More worryingly, the US is also pressuring Australia to join its freedom of navigation exercises in the sea – a move likely to further anger China.
As tensions in the South China Sea mount, it’s important to understand how this dispute began and what international law says about freedom of navigation and competing maritime claims in the waters.
In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted and signed, formalising extended maritime resource claims in international law. At this time, no fewer than six governments had laid claim to the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
Since then, there has been a creeping militarisation of the waters by nations seeking to secure extended maritime resource zones.
In 2009, Vietnam began reclaiming land around some of the 48 small islands it had occupied since the 1970s. In response, China began its much larger reclamations on submerged features it first began to occupy in the 1980s.
By 2016, these reclamations had resulted in three military-grade, mid-ocean airfields that sent shockwaves around the world, provoked in part by China breaking its own pledge not to militarise the islands.