(P21)The importance of the South China Sea

June 5, 2021

The South China Sea is one of the most important economic and environmental regions in the world.

More than half of the world’s fishing vessels are in the South China Sea, and millions of people depend on these waters for their food and livelihoods.

But the South China Sea has been dangerously overfished. Total fish stocks have been depleted by 70 to 95 percent since the 1950s. Coral reefs, which are vital to marine habitats, have been declining by 16 percent per decade, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


The region also is the subject of more than a dozen overlapping and interconnected disputes over who is in charge of the various islands, rocks, shoals and reefs scattered throughout the South China Sea waters.

For example, the Spratly Islands are claimed in entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia; each except Brunei occupies some of the islands.

Importance of international law

In such a complex environment, it is important to have well-established, recognizable rules of international law. That’s why the United States has urged countries to resolve maritime claim disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law. The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea is an international treaty that sets out important maritime rules.

Unfortunately, some countries fail to comply with the existing international law. China, for example, has asserted a maritime claim to a large majority of the South China Sea that is not consistent with international law.

Three years ago an arbitration tribunal issued a decision finding that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea are inconsistent with the Law of the Sea Convention.

Aerial view of man-made island with harbor (© DigitalGlobe/Getty Images).
Fiery Cross Reef, located in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is one of many reefs built up and militarized by China. (© DigitalGlobe/Getty Images)

The United States has formally objected to China’s South China Sea maritime claims.

“China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea is illegal and dangerous,” Vice President Pence said at the East Asia Summit last year. “It threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world.” China tries to control the waters by using fishing vessels that are part of the Chinese maritime militia, coast guard ships, and naval vessels to harass other countries’ boats and deny access to this key area.

Recent satellite analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that Chinese fishing fleets are “engaged in paramilitary work on behalf of the state rather than the commercial enterprise of fishing,” the organization reported.

“The United States will continue to stand with our allies and partners to uphold the order that we helped build,” Pence said. “We will defend freedom of the seas and skies.”