History of China’s Territorial Disputes

China's Territorial Disputes

While China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea take all the media coverage of China these days, China’s territorial disputes have been a hot topic of discussion since the 1950s.  Every decade, China has shifted its attention to a different country to argue claims.  Beijing opted for easy prizes with smaller countries first and then moved onto larger, more controversial zones as China became stronger.

china's territorial disputesBy 2016, China had disputed territorial claims with every single neighboring country, including those separated by water.  Take a look at the map below to get a visual of these disputes:

China has become rather skillful in settling these claims.  In a majority of the settlements, China walked from the table with at least some of the land (Fravel).  With six decades of experience disputing territory, Chinese officials are likely to be victorious in future attempts, including the “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea.

The Hague and South China Seatimg

The South China Sea Arbitration, or Philippines vs. China, was ruled on 12 July 2016 in favor of the Philippines.  While seemingly simple, the complexity of the situation is unbeknownst to the average newspaper reader; not only did Beijing reject the ruling.  Taiwan also rejected the decision.

Why would the tiny little island country of Taiwan reject this ruling?  This is because the Taiwanese government’s soul objective is to one day rule China again–Taiwan is actually a country in exile as a result of the Chinese Civil War.  They do not have an “independent Taiwan” on their agenda.  In other words, the Taiwanese government claims the South China Sea just as the Beijing government does.

Nonetheless, the ruling in favor of the Philippines will draw the US and Europe closer to Southeast Asian countries and will alienate China–and may put strains on US-Taiwan relations.  Beijing officials will continue to ignore international laws and rulings in belief that these are all designed to restrain China.  The country may have long to go before it realizes it cannot exist inside an international order while living out its own international order at the same time.


  1. What I will probably never understand is the reasoning for the claims of all those countries on the areas, especially in the South China Sea. I mean basically all of the countries had some “power” in the area/ the disputed sea in the past centuries. When looking China’s claim it looks kind of crazy due to the sheer size what is supposed to be Chinese waters.
    I mean just think if some Nation in Europe would start with such claims again (looking and Great Crazy Britain here), just nuts 😮
    But then again I have no real insights and only get info through the polluted news here and from my old extended history classes regarding the matter =/

    • I think it’s a universal truth that any nation claiming rights to the entirety of any sea is wrong in doing so, at least under the current international order. The problem specifically in Asia is that every nation now perceives themselves as “entering the international stage.” This is very evident when Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, bad-mouthed Obama just a couple weeks ago, leading to Obama actually leaving the meeting prematurely. Asia today looks like Europe in the 1800s. Is Xi Jinping going to be the next Napoleon with the South China Sea?

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