Part of the disputed Spratly Islands
Part of the disputed Spratly Islands © EPA

A UN tribunal has ruled unanimously in favour of the Philippines in its case against China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea. Here is a timeline of the dispute:

1947 The Republic of China publishes the first map including the “nine-dash line” looping around almost the entirety of the South China Sea and claiming waters adjacent to Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, for the government of Chiang Kai-shek.

October 2011 US secretary of state Hillary Clinton coins the term “pivot” to describe the US foreign policy shift towards a focus on Asia.

February 2012 Hong Lei, China’s foreign minister, states that “no country including China has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea”, apparently moderating the nine-dash line claim.

March 2012 China detains 21 Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracel Islands, alleging they had been fishing in Chinese waters illegally.

April 2012 The Philippine navy discovers Chinese fishing vessels in a lagoon off Scarborough Shoal, finding large amounts of what it describes as illegally harvested coral and other sea life. The US and Philippines hold a joint military exercise during the ensuing stand-off.

June 2012 Vietnam passes a new maritime law claiming sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands; China raises the administrative status of the disputed islands to the prefecture level.

September 2012 Philippine president Benigno Aquino announces the country’s western maritime territory has been renamed the West Philippine Sea.

South China Sea territorial control map

December 2012 China submits claims to the East China Sea to the UN following the purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by Japan’s government.

January 2013 The Philippines formally initiates arbitration of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea under the UN convention on the law of the sea with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague. China refuses to participate in the arbitration.

April 2013 Vietnam state media report that a cruise ship of Chinese tourists has embarked on a journey to the Paracel Islands.

November 2013 China announces an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, claiming the right to monitor and intercept aircraft it finds within the zone. The US flies two jets through the airspace shortly afterwards.

December 2013 The USS Cowpens is forced to use emergency evasive manoeuvres to avoid a collision with a People’s Liberation Army ship while observing China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, on its first voyage in the South China Sea.

January 2014 China’s southern province of Hainan introduces rules requiring non-Chinese fishing crews to acquire permits before entering much of the South China Sea to fish.

April 2014 Satellite photos show Chinese vessels dredging sand to build the submerged Mischief Reef into an island. US president Barack Obama visits Manila to sign the 10-year US-Philippines Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement, which provides for US troop and ship rotations in the Philippines.

May 2014 China moves an oil rig owned by the China National Petroleum Corporation near the Paracel Islands, prompting anti-Chinese protests to erupt in Vietnam that damage businesses with ties to China. Chinese ships fend off Vietnamese ships sent to the area, and ultimately removes the rig from the area in July.

August 2014 A Chinese fighter jet intercepts a US Navy surveillance aircraft.

September 2014 The US and Philippines conduct a joint military exercise near Scarborough Shoal.

October 2014 People’s Liberation Army Navy admiral Wu Shengli is reported by Taiwan intelligence to have visited five of the Spratly Islands occupied by China to observe reclamation work there.

November 2015 China’s foreign ministry asserts that the Philippines has breached a 2002 code of conduct agreed upon by it and Asean nations. Arguments commence against China’s claims to the South China Sea in China’s absence at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

February 2016 Satellite imagery shows China expanding Tree Island and North Island in the Paracels.

May 2016 Pentagon reports an “unsafe” interception by Chinese jets of a US surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea; President Obama visits Vietnam and lifts a 50-year arms embargo.

June 2016 A brief show of unity from Asean countries collapses as a statement expressing “serious concerns” over developments in the South China Sea is abruptly retracted. The Indonesian navy says it has fired warning shots at Chinese fishing boats operating in the Natuna Sea, part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

July 2016 China ratchets up its media campaign to discredit the validity of any ruling from the Philippines case after the tribunal says it will announce its ruling on July 12. Newly inaugurated Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte says his country might be willing to enter new talks with Beijing after the ruling.

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