Recently, there's been a lot of conflict and controversy concerning China's activities in the South China Sea.

At the center of this conflict is China's belief that they have a historical claim to jurisdiction over this area, which is much closer to other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, than to China. In recent years, they've been trying to bolster this claim by building islands in the area. This past week, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China is at fault in this conflict, and that they have been infringing upon the Philippines' sovereign rights.

I've been trying to figure out why China thinks it has a historical claim on this area, as it's pretty clear from looking at a map that they shouldn't.

So far, all I've found is a reference to an old map drawn shortly after World War II. This map has a dotted line around most of the South China Sea, indicating that it is Chinese territory. It appears that the line in the ocean was drawn completely arbitrarily, out of thin air. Nobody bothered to dispute the claim, since China didn't have the power or influence to back it up anyway. Now they're acting like this is an acknowledged historical fact.

Is that really it? What justification was there for claiming this area in the first place, and believing that they had the right to build islands in the area?

  • This is a very big questions, where anything greater than the briefest overview would exceed the character limit of the answer block. Consider narrowing it to "How China justifies this claim." Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 19:46
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    @DrunkCynic It seems to me that that's already what I've asked. Here's the question, word for word: "What justification was there for claiming this area in the first place?"
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:31
  • I asked a similar question about the South China Sea issue on the History SE site. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 6:16
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    The historical justification is that millions of years ago, lots of plants died in that area and were subsequently turned into oil in the bottom of that sea.
    – Cyrus
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 9:03
  • @Cyrus That's a good point, but if it were only about oil, China wouldn't mind a partition. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 8:01

4 Answers 4


Summary: Chinese justification of South China Sea sovereignty relate to a centuries of interests in the region. China's true motives relate to its economic security.

The common answer - that I personally heard from the mouth of a US government official based at the embassy in Beijing - is that China is using this issue to build public support for the CCP as the Chinese economy weakens. According to this narrative, international conflict will distract people from domestic issues. There might be some truth to this, but there is a bigger issue.

Whether the Chinese economy is strong or weak, their infrastructure projects are not stopping. There are massive natural resource requirements for these projects, and likewise China is a net importer of food. A trade disruption would cause huge problems for their economy, and untold suffering among the population. It is for its own practical security reasons that China seeks to control the South China Sea. A huge amount of trade flows through this area and the Straits of Malacca, as this route is critical for Chinese access to the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Europe. In addition to natural resource imports, the revenue streams from trade is also of critical importance for China.

Why does China feel insecure? Why doesn't China trust the international system to maintain free navigation? Understanding this is important in understanding why China wants military bases in the area. In the past 200 years China has had terrible problems caused by Europeans, Japanese, and Americans. Some examples: the Opium Wars, colonial treaty ports, First Sino-Japnese War, the multinational response to the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, World War II, and the isolation of communist China until the 1970s. China's living standards increase is only within the past 15 years, so poverty and suffering are in vivid memory of most people. And like people everywhere, Chinese people like to eat, have good access to modern medicine, and a reasonable material life.

China also sees the distinct possibility that it will be a "victim of war"; having seen aggressive wars recently in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ukraine. While it is nearly certain that there will be no hot war as China is a nuclear weapons holder, with a huge territory and population, and a seat on the UN security council. However, China is vulnerable to economic disruptions. Sanctions - or even the threat of sanctions - would be disastrous for China. This is why China seeks to secure its supply lines in the event of aggressive behavior by the US and Europe.

China justifies its actions in the South China Sea through historical claims that are mentioned on this Wikipedia site.

So what about Southeast Asia? There are a lot of people in these dozen countries; about 600 million. And every single one of these people has economic interest tied up in the South China Sea. These people also bore the violence of colonialism and WWII; the region is still in recovery from the US's anti-communist wars in the 1960's and 1970s. This newspaper article is a nice introduction to the issue from a SE Asian perspective.

Why is China trying to take the entire Sea for itself instead of the obvious method of breaking the sea up into smaller territories? Why doesn't China just acknowledge and respect Southeast Asia's needs? There are a couple of reasons: firstly, ownership of a small part will not ensure China's access to African and Middle Eastern natural resources and other foreign markets. If any part of the sea is blocked, then it becomes merely a place to fish and extract oil. Secondly, China's government is responsible to its own people, not to those of SE Asia. It views its security concerns as of vital importance, whereas it does not view itself as a threat to its neighbors; it knows that it can't close the sea to the Philippines or Vietnam. It would be very difficult. It also clearly states continuously that it wants to ensure that the South China Sea is open for Navigation.

So what about US interests in the area? I have been trying to understand this point, and have asked a probing question a few days ago over at SE History. As far as I can tell, the US is involved in politics everywhere in the world, and has many fingers in many pies. I very much want to understand the US motives more clearly.

  • This answer has a bunch of motivations for China trying to claim the area. Motivations are not justifications.
    – DCShannon
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 18:00

Unfortunately, the only support of the claim is the Nine-Dash Line, which looks unclear, casual and overbearing.

The Philippines v. China shows the legality of the Nine-Dash Line is weak. However Beijing decided to ignore the ruling (Taipei also refused the ruling) to keep the issue of South China Sea as a controversy, and used the controversy itself as a justification to develop these islands.


Think of Aesop's fable of the Wolf and the Lamb. The moral of the story is "Any excuse is good enough for a bully." Nations making such groups invent justifications.

Recently we had Saddam Hussein claiming Kuwait was historically a province of Iraq—when Iraq was a creation of France and Great Britain.

Before that we had Hitler claiming Sudetenland because of the claim Germans lived there.

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    Seems a fair point. However, your Hussein and Hitler examples do have reasons, even if they're flimsy. I guess I'm looking for the corresponding reason in this situation.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 2:27
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    Germans did live there though -- even a majority that wanted unification! There wasn't a single Chinese person living underwater within those reefs. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 20:57
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    Don't forget US joining Hawaii without any historical link, just for naval base and region control.) Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 7:44
  • In 2016 you didn't mention Crimea, but I wonder if Russia's "denazification" justification of a special military operation in 2022 could now also be a good example?
    – uhoh
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 3:12

Basically, it's because China's been building up islands which it believes are its sovereign territory, and anything within a certain distance of China's land is China's territorial waters (different distances for different purposes, up to 200 nautical miles from the islands they're building). China believes these new islands count as its land for those purposes. The Philippines, and the Court, disagreed.

Check out this CNN explainer, or the filings and documents at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (data may move to www.pca-cpa.org for archiving). The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative also has a bunch of information that may be of interest, including a timeline with some links to official documents.

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    Hm. Perhaps I should ask this on History SE instead, as this is not what I'm asking about at all. I'll try to edit the question to make it clearer.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:36
  • @DCShannon: The islands are the justification for claiming the sea area, and the links provide detailed access to China's arguments. This answers your question as asked. If you're asking a significantly different question, please ask a new one.
    – Burned
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:37
  • Like I said, I'll try to edit the question to make it clearer. I'm asking about their historical claim. The islands are a recent development. They didn't make a claim after building the islands, they felt they could build the islands because they already had a claim.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:38
  • I think you should ask a new question then. If it's about a historical claim, and you won't be satisfied by recognizing countries' wishes to increase their territory and power, maybe History.SE would be a better place for that question? China believed they had the resources to build and defend the islands, and saw how much they could stand to benefit from doing so...perceived benefits exceeded perceived costs.
    – Burned
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:39
  • @DCShannon The lawfare around control of the China Sea is extensively complex. Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:42

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