Students will:

  • Gather information about maritime disputes in the South China Sea and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • Work cooperatively within country groups to learn more about the perspective of one country on the conflict in the South China Sea.
  • Explore, discuss, and evaluate multiple perspectives on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Note: Teachers will need to be able to project video in their classrooms. Alternatively, students will need access to the internet to complete this activity.


Handout – South China Sea: Background Information

Handout – Key Terms (optional)

Handout – Differing Perspectives

Handout – Monitoring the News (optional)

Video, text, and visual data resources – see resources below

1. Understanding the History of Disputed Territorial Claims

Begin class by asking students if they have heard about the conflict in the South China Sea. Invite students to share what they know. Explain to students that in order to better understand the scope and complexity of territorial claims in the South China Sea, they will have an opportunity to explore video and text resources. This will help them to learn about historical and current disputes in the region.

Video overviews

Show the Choices video, “How do security tensions in Asia affect the United States’ relationship with China?” to your class. Write on the board or post these questions in an online classroom forum for students to consider and discuss:

  • After World War II, how did European and Asian countries approach issues of political and economic integration differently?
  • What are U.S. strategic interests in the South China Sea and the surrounding region?

Distribute South China Sea: Background Information, which students should use to take notes. Show the Vox video “Why China is building islands in the South China Sea.”

You may wish to project the video and watch as a class, stopping to discuss and guide students through note taking (page one of the handout). Alternatively, students could watch the video and take notes independently or as homework if they have access to the internet.

As you watch and discuss the video, it may be helpful for students to have the “Key Terms” handout to review. Make sure students understand that the UN sought to create the law of the sea, or “constitution of the oceans,” to codify international maritime law. This is key to understanding the legal claims countries are making in the South China Sea.

Visual data and text resources

Ask students to explore the following online data and text resources to learn more about important events and key issues in the South China Sea conflict. Evidence they gather from the online sources will help them to understand more about natural resources in the region and efforts to resolve disputes. They will add this evidence to the second page of the “South China Sea: Background Information” handout.

EconomistThe South China Sea (EEZ, Reef Building, Oil and Gas Reserves, Military Spending) (visual data)

New York Times Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea (text resource)

2. Exploring Differing Perspectives

Explain to the class that they will be working in two different sets of groups. First, they will form “country groups” where they will consider the issues related to the South China Sea from the perspective of a single country assigned to them. Then they will form “diplomacy groups,” made up of students from each of the country groups.

Divide the class into “country groups.” Form groups of students so that an equal number study each of the countries listed below. Distribute a copy of the “South China Sea: Differing Perspectives” handout to each student.

Ask each group to read the articles below related to the country they have been asked to study. Students should identify and discuss the important issues and evidence related to their country, adding notes on page one of the handout. (You may consider completing this part of the lesson over one or more days. You could do this by assigning the country group articles as homework and conducting the discussion on the following day.)

A Voice of America resource, “Conflict and Diplomacy on the High Seas,” contains a helpful overview and an interactive, clickable map to enable students to learn more about the economic interests and regional infrastructure of each country in the region.


People’s Daily: Land reclamation to expand in South China Sea islands: expert

Reuters:China’s top paper says U.S. forcing China to accelerate South China Sea deployments


New York Times: “Vietnam, Yielding to Beijing, Backs Off South China Sea Drilling

Reuters:Vietnam protests over Chinese military drill in South China Sea


Guardian:China and Malaysia agree on military cooperation in the South China Sea

Asia Times:Malaysia speaks softly in the South China Sea


New York Times:Philippines Halts Work in South China Sea, in Bid to Appease Beijing

Reuters:China, Philippines Agree to Avoid Force in South China Sea Dispute

United States

New York Times:Trump’s Mixed Signals on South China Sea Worry Asian Allies

Reuters:U.S. Destroyer Challenges China’s Claims in South China Sea

After students have had an opportunity to meet together in country groups, jigsaw students into “diplomacy groups” so that each of the countries listed on page two of the handout is represented in the new groups. Students should present their country’s perspective to others in the group. Other students should listen carefully, take notes on the graphic organizer, and ask questions. When each country representative has presented, ask students to use their new knowledge to discuss key issues and potential solutions to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Ask them to consider existing or new approaches or policies that could help to resolve the conflict. How might students’ discussions be similar to or different from international discussions?

You may wish to collect students’ notes to assess for accuracy and completion.

3. Concluding Discussion

You may wish to ask students to discuss these questions in their diplomacy groups or in a whole-class discussion.

  • What should be the primary goal(s) of U.S. policy in the South China Sea?
  • How might U.S. goals in the South China Sea be tied to other foreign policy goals in Asia (for example, the North Korean crisis)?
  • Which policies might best achieve these goals?
  • Which U.S. actions would students support?
  • Which U.S. actions would concern students?
  • What are acceptable reasons, if any, for military intervention?
  • What role can the United States, the United Nations, and/or the international community play to ease regional tensions, facilitate greater cooperation, and reduce the likelihood of armed conflict?

Extra Challenges

  • There are other maritime disputes in East Asia. Encourage students to learn more about ongoing disputes between China and Japan or between Japan and Korea. How might these disputes detract from or heighten tensions in the South China Sea? Ask students to respond to this question in writing.
  • Encourage students to follow the South China Sea conflict in the news over a period of time using the “Monitoring the News” handout. You may choose to have students explore the conflict more generally or continue to follow up on news using sources from or about the country they researched. After following the issue for a few weeks, bring the class together to debrief. How has the situation in the South China Sea evolved? How do students think the international community should respond?
  • The United States has not ratified UNCLOS although it has adopted many of its legal standards. Students may be interested in learning about the controversy surrounding ratification by reading this Voice of America article. Have students could make a chart highlighting the arguments for and against ratifying the treaty.  Students also may review this UN Treaty Collection website to see which countries have ratified UNCLOS.

Optional Resources

These resources are not required to complete the lesson, but may be of interest to students.

Council on Foreign Relations—China’s Maritime Disputes – This introductory video from the Council on Foreign Relations provides an overview of maritime conflicts in East and Southeast Asia. It explores how China’s increasing economic and political power has changed its role in the region and the world, and raises questions about whether diplomacy in the region will be able to resolve rising pressures and tensions. See the tabs at the top of the website to explore text and visual data.

BBC – Why is the South China Sea contentious?  (text resource)

PBS – 5 things you should know about the South China Sea conflict (text resource)

Voice of America – Conflict and Diplomacy on the High Seas (text resource and interactive map)

Reuters – A turf war on the South China Sea (interactive map of Spratly Islands)

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative – A Constructive Year for Chinese Base Building (visual resource)

Reuters – South China Sea code of conduct talks to be ‘stabilizer’ for region: China premier (text resource)

This Teaching with the News lesson was written by Amy Sanders, Choices Teaching Fellow and teacher at Yarmouth High School in Yarmouth, Maine.

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