“Following a closed-door meeting, the defence ministers of Cambodia and Singapore announced yesterday that the controversial South China Sea dispute would not be placed on the agenda at next week’s ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting.” Phnom Penh Post
So what is up for debate in the South China Sea? Apparently a good deal:
- Indonesia, China, and Taiwan over waters NE of the Natuna Islands
- The Philippines, China, and Taiwan over the Malampaya and Camago gas fields.
- The Philippines, China, and Taiwan over Scarborough Shoal.
- Vietnam, China, and Taiwan over waters west of the Spratly Islands. Some or all of the islands themselves are also disputed between Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
- The Paracel Islands are disputed between the PRC/ROC and Vietnam.
- Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam over areas in the Gulf of Thailand.
- Singapore and Malaysia along the Strait of Johore and the Strait of Singapore.
China and Vietnam have both been vigorous in prosecuting their claims. The People’s Republic of China and South Vietnam each controlled part of the Paracel Islands before 1974. A brief conflict in 1974 resulted in 18 soldiers being killed, and China has controlled the whole of Paracel since then. The Spratly Islands have been the site of a naval clash, in which over seventy Vietnamese sailors were killed just south of Chigua Reef in March 1988. Disputing claimants regularly report clashes between naval vessels.
ASEAN in general, and Malaysia in particular, has been keen to ensure that the territorial disputes within the South China Sea do not escalate into armed conflict. As such, Joint Development Authorities have been set up in areas of overlapping claims to jointly develop the area and dividing the profits equally without settling the issue of sovereignty over the area. This is true, particularly in the Gulf of Thailand. Generally, China has preferred to resolve competing claims bi-laterally, while ASEAN countries prefer multi-lateral talks, believing that they are disadvantaged in bi-lateral negotiations with the much larger China and that because many countries claim the same territory only multilateral talks could effectively resolve the competing claims.
The overlapping claims over Pedra Branca or Pulau Batu Putih including neighboring Middle Rocks by both Singapore and Malaysia were settled in 2008 by the International Court of Justice, awarding Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh to Singapore and Middle Rocks to Malaysia.
In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the Peoples Republic of China to resolve the territorial dispute. China responded by demanding the US keep out of the issue. This came at a time when both countries have been engaging in naval exercises in a show of force to the opposing side, which increased tensions in the region. The US Department of Defense released a statement on August 18 where it opposed the use of force to resolve the dispute, and accused China of assertive behaviour.
Chinese objection to Indian naval presence and oil exploration
On July 22, 2011, one of India’s amphibious assault vessels, the INS Airavat which was on a friendly visit to Vietnam, was reportedly contacted at a distance of 45 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast in the disputed South China Sea, was contacted on open radio channel identifying itself as the Chinese Navy and stating that the ship was entering Chinese waters.  The spokesperson for the Indian Navy clarified that as no ship or aircraft was visible from INS Airavat it proceeded on her onward journey as scheduled. The Indian Navy further clarified that “[t]here was no confrontation involving the INS Airavat. India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all.” 
In September 2011, shortly after China and Vietnam had signed an agreement seeking to contain a dispute over the South China Sea, India’s state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said that its overseas investment arm ONGC Videsh Limited had signed a three-year deal with PetroVietnam for developing long-term cooperation in the oil sector and that it had accepted Vietnam’s offer of exploration in certain specified blocks in the South China Sea.  In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, without referring to India by name, stated as follows: “China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island. China’s stand is based on historical facts and international law. China’s sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by Chinese Government for long. On the basis of this China is ready to engage in peaceful negotiations and friendly consultations to peacefully solve the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights so as to positively contribute to peace and tranquillity in the South China Sea area. We hope that the relevant countries respect China’s position and refrain from taking unilateral action to complicate and expand the issue. We hope they will respect and support countries in the region to solve the bilateral disputes through bilateral channels. As for oil and gas exploration activities, our consistent position is that we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in South China Sea dispute.”  The spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India responded by saying that “The Chinese had concerns but we are going by what the Vietnamese authorities have told us and have conveyed this to the Chinese.” The Indo-Vietnamese deal was also denounced by the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times.