Risk & Security 

Who Owns the South China Sea Islands?

By World Policy Journal

Two deployed Chinese oil rigs in the South China Sea have created a tense standstill, as Vietnam and the Philippines claim sovereignty over the islands in that region.

Is China’s partial retreat a sign of peace to come? Will China make any new aggressive moves in the South China Sea? These questions arise after the July 16 removal of China’s controversial Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig from 17 miles off of Vietnam’s coast in the South China Sea.

Editorial assistant Aliza Goldberg joined New York Times photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson and CEO of Quaternion Peter Marino on July 23, 2014 for a panel discussion about the South China Sea disputes. Her recent coverage for the Journal featured an article, “Push Comes to Shove in the South China Sea,” on the dispute.

Drawing from her personal experience, having lived in Vietnam in 2010 and worked for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in 2012, Goldberg opened her segment of the talk with some simple advice, “Don’t panic.”

“The activity in the South China Sea makes for an excellent story, but I don’t believe it’s a real cause for alarm,” she continued.

Goldberg gave an overview of the conflict, detailing the confusion over certain maritime claims and discussing the economic prospects in the South China Sea. She then addressed the situation’s most recent updates: Chinese vessels ramming into Vietnamese fishing boats and the report from Vietnam coast guard’s chief of staff, Admiral Ngo Ngoc Thu, that the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig’s exploration project had finished.

Goldberg seemed skeptical: “Rumor on the street, however, is that there was less oil than expected in that area. Which then puts this whole conflict into a different perspective.”

Gilbertson added to Goldberg’s analysis with a report from the ground. He shared pictures from his time on a Filipino fishing vessel, telling stories of how the politics of the region play out in the daily life on the sea. He gave examples of Chinese vessels intimidating Filipino construction of several shoals and reefs. His pictures can be found in The New York Times Magazine’s article, “A Game of Shark and Minnow.”

The discussion was followed by a Q&A moderated by Marino regarding the future of these disputes and its international implications.



Aliza Goldberg is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and Berkeley Carroll]

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