In recent years, the South China Sea has become somewhat important from a geo-political standpoint. China is building military bases, among many other things, and the US has been speaking about containing a militarily aggressive China. As a student of history, it is important to look at this dispute in context not only of the current political motives, but also in terms of the history.

South China Sea Territorial Dispute

(picture from Wikipedia)

Historically speaking, most spoken about in the media and in Wikipedia are the various territorial claims by different claimant entities. Anyone who glances at a map can see that several countries might have valid claims: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and the Philippines. Which of these countries ultimately control this water has nothing to do with my question. It is notable that the United States does not have any territory in this area, and that the United States has no territorial claim.

So why does the US Navy have a significant presence in the South China Sea? Why is this an important election issue for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Why is this front page news in the US? The media gives a few "standard narrative" answers for this, related to international freedom of navigation, international law, trade, and to protect US business interests. Strangely absent from the standard narrative is the US colonial legacy in the Philippines. The US didn't recognize the Philippines as an independent country until 1946, and had a significant military presence there until base closures in the 1990's. It would not be hard to characterize the Philippines as a client state of the US, or at least under neo-colonial control. Edit: It is suggested in the comments that the word "neo-colonial control" is to strong. The characterization is considered incorrect by many; but it is undeniable that the US has a history of economically punishing countries to not follow its policies)

It is significant that Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei were not fully independent from the colonial powers until after the 1960's.

It seems that to fully understand the South China Sea territorial dispute, it is critically important to understand the colonial history of the region.

So the preliminary questions are prior to 1930, were there any formal colonial claimants to this area? Did any have recognized sovereignty over this area of water?

The Big Question: What impact does this colonial legacy have on the current US presence in this dispute?

Edit: Perhaps the US colonial legacy has no impact on US interests in this area! Any and all answers are possibly acceptable.

  • 2
    "East Asia co prosperity sphere." The US is playing Imperial Japan. Move along... Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 10:49
  • 1
    I like this line of questioning. The whole US Intervention in the "South China Sea" area has me personally baffled. China isn't gobbling up actually full countries, just disputed islands and archipelagos. There is no huge oil fields (that I know of). Why on Earth does it (the US) really care, after all?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 12:48
  • 1
    Your question has embedded assumptions that you seem unwilling to acknowledge. IF you have assumed an answer, why are you asking a question? You are assuming some colonial linkage. Only you know why you have chosen to do that. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 2:42
  • 1
    This question confuses me greatly - I don't know what the various sentences have to do with one another. The current Presidential election is out of scope for H:SE. Where is the standard narrative to which you refer? The question begins by asserting that the US has no colonial legacy, and then asks for the impact of the (non-existent) colonial legacy. I don't know how to begin to do research to answer this question.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 15:48
  • 3
    I guess I'm OCD enough to think that history should not enter into this. China signed the UNCLOS, which specifies exactly what their territorial rights are in that area. If they didn't want to abide by that, they shouldn't have promised to do so.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 19:24

4 Answers 4


Prior to 1930 (1946), actually, the U.S. had claims in this area, through its possession of the Philippines. This is because the Philippines are one of 10 so-called ASEAN (Southeast Asian) nations. Even to this day, the U.S. has certain treaty rights in the Philippines. That is to say that the U.S. retains a defensive interest in Philippine affairs, even though she has granted independence to the Philippines.

Other formal claimants in the general area before 1945 were the French (Indochina), the Dutch (East Indies, modern Indonesia), and the British (Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei). These three powers are gone, the U.S. is not.

The ASEAN nations basically surround this waterway shown in the map. It is the "fourth" great region of Asia (after China, India, and Japan). If they were a country, they would have 500 million people and over 1 million square miles, giving them great economic and strategic importance. And while ASEAN is less rich than the other countries, the waterway affects ASEAN much more; that is, all of ASEAN versus e.g. only part of China.

  • I changed the question a little Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 11:52
  • @axsvl77: And I added a new sentence to my first paragraph that hopefully addresses the revised version. Thanks for the "heads up."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 13:39
  • @KorvinStarmast: Ok, changed "proprietary" to "defensive." Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 16:45
  • Ah, makes far more sense now. Removed the other two comments. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 16:46

Tom Au has offered a solid answer about the narrow view regarding colonial claims, but those are in 2016 mostly irrelevant. What is more relevant are claims, current and future, made under the current protocols for territorial waters of UN members and exclusive economic zones. This informs the rights to resources in seas and continental shelves. (ILOS is all about that). That makes this answer a bit of a frame challenge. You may as well ask about the American "colonial legacy" in German and Italy, where we still have bases. Wait a minute: there isn't one.

Realpolitik, not colonial anything

  • Your hand wave of some of the core issues involved in the South China Sea, and the attempt to replace them with some "real reason" are done for your own reasons. But they miss the point of what the world is in 2016.

  • Clinton and Trump are making noise to feed two audiences:

    • Domestic: it's all hot air from the both of them

    • International: the nations with whom America has been working on this issue since the early 1990's are being assured "we still care about you and your problem with your big neighbor."

The core American interests in the post-colonial era -- which is anchored in the founding of the UN and the emergence of so many new nation states -- remain trade and the ability to have some influence in regions all over the world. America is engaged globally because it trades globally. (America's experiment as a colonial power was fairly brief -- late 1890's to the end of WW II).

While China was in the Cold War era an ideological and political rival to America, since the early 1990's that inter-power rivalry has changed to include an increasingly commercial character. (For some background on how the US became a power, and its role in the late 20th century as a hegemon, I recommend Walter Russell Meade's "Special Providence." Short answer: international trade has been a core national interest since the US was a colony of the English Crown. That has not changed, and has increased in importance over time).

Why is the "colonial" tag irrelevant? Because the year is 2016. In the generation after the UN was founded (from about 1945 to about 1975) dozens and dozens of previous colonies emerged as nation states in their own rights, and as UN members. (As you note, the Philippines in 1946). Of course, this didn't happen in a vacuum.

Relationships with previous colonial powers sustained to one degree or another -- such as in Francophone West Africa or among Commonwealth nations -- but in some cases underwent profound changes like the French/Viet Nam relationship, or how Angola and Mozambique profoundly broke with the Portuguese as much as the Portuguese broke with them. After President Aquino's government invited the Americans to leave in 1991, and after the bases closed, the relationship changed in character from blatantly "paternalistic" to "someone we've had a relationship with for a long time." The Philippines are but one player in the SCS resource issue. You are better off viewing the issue from the PoV of the local nations: Malaysia, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Philippines, Brunei, etc. What are their interests, and how do they pursue them? For whatever reason, you have chosen to try and see this through a US centric lens.

What are the core interests of the US in the South China Sea?

  1. Trading relationships with all nations in the region
  2. Freedom of navigation (and how that enables commerce)
  3. Access for development (usually joint) to resources
  4. A mixed bag of bilateral security agreements.

Those bilateral agreements are entered into with an eye toward the reality that China is The Major Regional Power. As with Central America vis a vis the Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, the small and medium sized nations in this region are wary of being overwhelmed or pushed around by the local Power. (Heck, look at what the Japanese managed to do in mid-20th century!) These nations can shop around for big / strong friends (or friends of convenience) as a counterbalance. That isn't a colonial legacy, it's realpolitik in action. (To badly quote Otto von Bismarck on power's balance: When there are five powers, make sure we are on the side with three, not the side with two).

For their own reasons, the local nations have chosen the Americans as a big / strong friend since this dispute has some far reaching impacts into the future. (You could argue that an advantage the Philippines has is that they know the US very well, and know what buttons to push and what traps not to fall into).

The Spratly Islands emerged as a regional "problem" as the potential for resource exploitation ran into the exam question: "Whose turf is this?"

Does the US have an interest? Yes.

Politically and strategically (from a US point of view) if the SCS becomes a resource node for petroleum/energy, that reduces the importance of the Persian Gulf and spreads out risk. SCS resources being controlled and developed by numerous nations is a preferable situation to One Big Dog in the SCS oil patch (See Saudi Arabia as a model for the latter case). It also spreads the wealth, which tends to encourage trade. America has discovered to its chagrin (see 1973 oil embargo) that it is in America's interest for there not to be One Big Dog in a major oil/energy node.

America has chosen to back the ASEAN position rather than get into bed with One Big Dog -- with whom we have massive commercial connections. America could have chosen to back the Chinese. Why not? Residual Cold War antipathy, as well as commercial rivalry, but from a strategic perspective, it's a lot more "balance of power" and support for the variety of allies/friends who are worried about that One Big Dog. That includes Japan, who does not have skin in the SCS game.

About Energy and Natural Resources: as you saw with Iraq in 1990/1991, anything that influences the flow of commerce and energy is of interest to every major commercial nation. (The 20th - 21st century global economy is built on energy, see Daniel Yergin's The Prize for a good treatment of that). It wasn't just America who cared. Japan provided cash to support that operation. The Saudis provided billions in out of pocket support.

I Claim This Rock! (why do they do this?)

Lately, the Chinese look to be doing in SCS what the Greeks and Turks have done in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean for decades. If you put your flag on a rock in a coastal area/continental shelf within 12 or 200 miles of your coast, do you get to claim everything within 12 miles of that rock? Within 200, is it all yours for economic purposes? Every few years, in the island and rock filled Aegean Sea, the Greeks and the Turks get into chest thumping exercises over which rock is whose and who just committed an airspace violation near X rock. It usually gets sorted out via a government to government contact, but the big noise is made for political reasons, foreign and domestic. There are other motives, and in the SCS it looks to be money.

The Chinese aren't the only ones who do this. Since they are a Regional Power and the rest are not they are more likely to get away with it. The Americans do not see this imbalance as in their national, global interest.

(From the link)
1930s France first occupied various Spratly islands.
1934-1944 During WWII, Japan displaced the French and occupied the Spratly Islands, using the islands as a submarine base. After the war, neither the French nor the Japanese returned to the islands.
1946 Kuomintang forces took possession of the Itu Aba island -- the largest Spratly island.
1968 The Philippines take control of 3 islands.
1973 South Vietnam possessed 5 islands in the Spratlys
1974 China disregards territorial claims by South Vietnam, and occupies the Paracel Islands lying north of the Spratly Islands. U.S. and South Vietnam naval forces clash over island ownership.
1978 The Philippines extend an official claim to islands east of the Spratlys, naming them the Freedom Islands. China removes 6 Spratly atolls from Vietnam's possession.
1979 Malaysia claims its first Spratly island, indicating that the island is part of Malaysia's continental shelf.
1988 China and Vietnam become military engaged over Johnson Reef. China retains occupation of the reef. By April, Vietnam expands claims to include 15 additional reefs. China occupies 6 isles.
1989 International outrage at the Tiananmen Square incident in China calmed China's aggression in the South China Sea, in an attempt to further avoid infuriating international opinion.
1992 The Manila declaration was drafted and claimants agreed to peaceful resolution of the disputes.
1992 On 25 February 1992, China passed the "Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zones" Law, laying claim to all Spratly islands, as well as several other archipelagos.

Issue: Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from the country's coastline. What's at stake in the SCS and its resource zones is money, and future energy revenue. From a survey in the mid 90's ...

Oil and natural gas reserves in the Spratly region are estimated at 17.7 billion tons; Kuwait's reserves amount to 13 billion tons. The Spratly reserves place it as the fourth largest reserve bed worldwide.

More recent estimates

  • The most optimistic estimate suggests that potential oil resources (not proved reserves) of the Spratly and Paracel Islands could be as high as 105 billion barrels of oil, and that the total for the South China Sea could be as high as 213 billion barrels. A common rule-of-thumb for such frontier areas as the Spratly Islands Sea is that perhaps 10% of the potential resources can be economically recovered. Even using this rule, Chinese estimates imply potential production levels for the Spratly Islands of 1.9 million barrels/day.
  • The USGS has placed the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the offshore basins of the South China Sea at 266 Tcf.

As deep drilling tech improves, the recoverable reserves may increase. Or not.
- Who has the rights to drill where?
- Who can preclude others from drilling where?
- How big a slice of this revenue pie does anyone get?

Territorial waters were once "three miles from the coast" but were later extended to "twelve miles from the coast." This started with the Russians in about 1960, and over time has become the internationally recognized standard.

Since the 1970's, an ongoing effort has been underway regarding who has rights on continental shelves. This has led to the 200 nautical mile economic zones. Some of this relates to fishing rights and freedom of navigation, but as tech has improved this gets to mineral rights. (See the International Law of the Sea Treaty and its halting progress over the years in the ILOS link in the introduction).

Where zones overlap, nations are expected to meet and agree on the boundary between them. Colonial legacy? Irrelevant to the current and future issue in the SCS.

What is at issue is commercial competition for resources among a variety of players, China and ASEAN foremost. How long (Philippines) or how recent (Viet Nam) a relationship with the Americans has run may seem to be of interest if your look through a very narrow field of view at the US. The Americans are supporting actors, not stars in this film. Current concerns overwrite "historical" concerns, and in this case future concerns overwrite them with heavier ink. Fifty years ago, Malaysia was just emerging from the British sphere of influence. The US has a relationship with them now as a nation. Likewise with Indonesia, regardless of the Dutch influence from centuries past. None of that history informs why Malaysia and Indonesia have a relationship with the US now. They have present and future issues to address.

The past isn't what matters.
The future matters to all of the players in this game.
The core American interest is in a local power balance and in commerce.


Note: having produced a small mountain of staff work, research and correspondence on this region in the early and mid 1990's, and a couple of brief papers at staff college (my forecasts were some right and some wrong on how our relationship with Viet Nam was going to evolve) I have found that things have changed slowly but inexorably toward a very predictable confrontation. What I guessed wrong, badly, was in how late it would be before American policy makers would accept the seriousness of China as a rival. Obama's "pivot toward Asia" is, from where I saw it then, about 12-15 years late).

  • Were any of the staff college papers published? I'd like to read them. I learned a lot from this post. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 17:27
  • Nope, my monographs were on other topics. Looking back on some of my work with 20+ years of hindsight, there was some good, some bad, and some ugly. I was far more interested in Viet Nam and what the future held with our relations to them than with the Philippines, at the time. A lot of much better stuff has been written by others than my "fulfill academic requirement" on that particular topic. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 17:31
  • @asxvl77 I am not a member at politics SE, but your answer from China PoV looked pretty solid to me. China understands that 'nobody looks out after you like you look after yourself' and they are rationally skeptical about relying on "the international system" for keeping that trade route open. Even though it is in multiple nations' interests to keep that trade route open, China's priority makes sense due to their reliance on international trade. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 17:49

In theory, history should not enter into this. China signed the UNCLOS, which specifies exactly what their territorial rights are in that area. They clearly did so with enthusiasm, as they were one of the charter signers way back in 1982. If they didn't want to abide by that agreement, they shouldn't have promised to do so.

The US (or history prior to 16 November 1994) theoretically shouldn't even enter into the discussion. The US hasn't signed that convention themselves, so they aren't really even a party to the dispute.

Where they do come in is that the convention itself has no real military teeth. If China really feels like ignoring their agreement, the other signatories around the South and East China seas aren't really militarily strong enough to do anything about it. That situation exists in large part because the stronger of the countries in question (Japan, South Korea, and perhaps the Philippines) have been relying on the US Navy to handle the lion's share of their Naval protection needs.

Some of that is due to US colonialism, particularly with respect to the Phillipines. However, in Japan's case its probably more accurate to say it has to do with Japan's own history of colonialism.

enter image description here

Japan is quite capable of building a Navy superior to China's, but doing so would make a lot of their former 20th century colonies (including China) very nervous, given how Japan used their navy last time they had one. Likely that would end with all of them feeling forced to build up navies too.

So if the USA doesn't step in to defend Japan's (and incidentally everyone else's) treaty rights in that area, the result could be a very wasteful and dangerous arms race in the South China and East China seas. That is why the USA is involved.

  • A very interesting approach with this answer. "That is why" seems to me to actually be "that is part of why" since I think the issue isn't that simple. I am also not sure that there isn't an arms race in progress, given where weapons sales, and in China weapons programs development, are heading. (IIRC, the Chinese are building another aircraft carrier ...) Nice answer, and more concise than mine. 8^D Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 22:00
  • This answer has some good points. However, I'd say there are times when the modus operandi for the US is to start an arms race to increase weapons sales. Perhaps keeping Japan militarily weak since WWII has had similar motives to the interwar period? Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 6:40
  • @axsv177 How exactly would or has the United States "started an arms race" in order to sell weapons? When the US has participated in an arms race it's been between it and a major rival, such as the Soviet Union. And while the terms of the WWII peace treaty did limit the Japanese military and allow for US occupation, those terms are long over. To date Japan is limited not by US concerns, but rather by it's own constitution and self identified security needs.
    – user27618
    Commented Jul 13, 2020 at 22:49
  • @JMS - The best argument I could think of is the Middle East, but that region already had 3 (post-WWII) wars under its belt, largely fought with French and Soviet weapons, before the US jumped in and started supplying "aid" to both sides in 1976. I'd wager that its tough to find a Cold War era "hot" war where neither side was relying on Soviet weaponry.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 12:29
  • @T.E.D I'm unaware of any hot war in the middle east where the US supplied both sides with Weapons. Israel has fought many wars against soviet sponsored egypt, syria. Israel has never fought a war with US aligned Egypt. BTW when Egypt shifted aligences it did so as part of a negotiated peace treaty with Israel. The vast majority of the military aid received by both parties was paid for by the US taxpayer, not Egypt, nor Israel. US economy doesn't profit from weapons sales in the ME. It costs the US economy money.
    – user27618
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 21:18

China is building military bases, among many other things, and the US has been speaking about containing a militarily aggressive China. As a student of history, it is important to look at this dispute in context not only of the current political motives, but also in terms of the history.


The International Law as outlined by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, reserves for all countries:

  • 0-12 miles of territorial waters, In which countries are free to pass laws and enforce them as they see fit. Countries are permitted to temporarily suspend innocent passage in these zones unless the waters are contain strategic straits.
  • 12-24 another 12 miles beyond territorial waters are considered contiguous zone, or hot pursuit zone. In which countries may continue to enforce customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution laws; if the infringement started within the state's territorial waters.
  • 0-200 miles from the coast is considered exclusive economic zone. Countries have exclusive rights to these waters for fishing, mineral rights, and under sea cables. The law allows for innocent passage.

China claims about 90% of the South China sea which extends in some cases more than 1000 miles from it's shore as its territorial waters. China makes this claim because it claims it as historically owned and managed these waters dating back centuries / millennia. In order to bolster this claim in the last few years China has built artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea, creating military bases, and claiming 200 mile "exclusive economic zones" around each of these islands.

enter image description here
Chinese territorial claims (red line), 2010s, Blue Lines are Internationally recognized territorial waters. Green dots are disputed islands

Nine-dash line
On 12 July 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled that China has no legal basis to claim "historic rights" within its nine-dash line in a case brought by the Philippines. The tribunal judged that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources within the nine-dash line. The ruling was rejected by both the PRC and ROC governments

The 2016 U.N. tribunal also rejected China's claims for exclusive economic zones for each of it's artificial islands. In order for an island to gain an economic zone it must be able to sustain life. It must have fresh water. Since the Chinese islands were built by piling rocks on top of partially submerged reefs and don't possess fresh water they are not eligible for exclusive economic waters according to the Hague arbitration tribunal. PRC also rejected this ruling.

The United States has no territorial claims in the South China sea and is not involved in the South China Sea to dispute its territorial claims. The United States, India, Australia, the UK, France and other countries are involved in the South China sea not because they claim parts of the territory, but rather to assert freedom of navigation, and freedom of transit rights in international waters.

Much of the South China Sea is international waters free to anyone to use. China's claim to these waters threaten international order which these countries depend upon.

Freedom of Navigation exercises has been one of the US Navy's peacetime missions for literally hundreds of years. China's unilaterally claiming territorial rights in international waters don't change accepted international agreements and laws. As the International tribunal in The Hague confirmed July of 2016.

Building artificial rocks and stationing troops on them doesn't give China the right to claim exclusive use nor exclusive economic zones around those rocks. The US Navy passes through the South China sea periodically to assert its rights to navigate in internationally waters. Just like it did in the Black sea during the Cold War. Just like it does all over the world. That's what many countries do in the South China Sea, many of which don't have any territorial claims in the region except the vested interest in international law.

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