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Spratly Islands

Map of the Spratly Islands.

The Spratly Islands ( literally “Southern sands” (also "Nansha Islands"); Vietnamese: Trường Sa “Long Sands”; Filipino: (Kalayaan "Independence") are a disputed group of approximately 100 reefs and islets in the South China Sea. Part of the South China Sea Islands, the Spratlys are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and gas and oil deposits. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the entire group, while Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei claim parts of the group. Several of the nations involved have soldiers stationed in the Spratlys: the PRC has about 450 troops, Malaysia 70–90, the Philippines about 100, and Vietnam about 1,500. Taiwan also maintains a military presence in the group’s largest island, Itu Aba.


Geography and economic development

  • Coordinates:
  • Area (land): less than 5 km²
    • note: includes 100 or so islets, coral reefs, and sea mounts scattered over an area of nearly 410,000 km² of the central South China Sea
  • Coastline: 926 km
  • Climate: tropical
  • Terrain: flat
  • Elevation extremes:
    • lowest point: South China Sea (0 m)
    • highest point: unnamed location on Southwest Cay (4 m)
  • Natural hazards: typhoons; serious maritime hazard because of numerous reefs and shoals

The islands contain no arable land and have no indigenous inhabitants, although twenty of the islands, including Itu Aba, the largest, are considered to be able to sustain human life.

Natural resources include fish, guano, undetermined oil and natural gas potential. Economic activity is limited to commercial fishing. The proximity to nearby oil- and gas-producing sedimentary basins suggests the potential for oil and gas deposits, but the region is largely unexplored, and there are no reliable estimates of potential reserves. Commercial exploitation has yet to be developed. The Spratly Islands have no ports or harbors but it has four airports. This islands are strategically located near several primary shipping lanes.


The first possible recorded human interaction with the Spratly Islands dates back as far as 3BCE and is based on the discovery of coins left by Chinese mariners. The islands were sporadically visited throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by mariners from different European powers (including either Richard or William Spratly , after whom the island group derives its most recognisable English name), but these nations displayed little interest in the islands.

France occupied a number of the Spratly Islands, including Itu Aba, in the 1930s and administered them as part of French Indochina but were displaced by the Japanese during World War II, who used the islands as a submarine base for its campaigns for Southeast Asia. During the occupation, these islands were called Shinnan Shoto (新南諸島), lit. New Southern Islands. Following the defeat of Japan, the Kuomintang claimed Itu Aba but did not occupy the island. Japan renounced all claims to the islands in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty but there was no accompanying declaration announcing sovereignty over the region.

Political dispute

The first indication that the Spratly Islands were more than merely a hazard to shipping was in 1968 when oil was discovered in the region. The PRC’s Geology and Mineral Resources Ministry have estimated that the Spratly area holds oil and natural gas reserves of 17.7 billion tons (1.60 10¹ kg), as compared to the 13 billion tons (1.17 10¹ kg) held by Kuwait, placing it as the fourth largest reserve bed in the world. Naturally, this assisted in intensifying the situation and the push to claim the islands intensified. On 11 March 1976, the first major Philippine oil discovery occurred off the coast of Palawan, within the Spratly Islands territory and these oil fields now count for fifteen percent of all petroleum consumed in the Philippines.

But the claimants to sovereignty have not awarded offshore concessions in the islands for fear of provoking a clash with the other countries also claiming sovereignty over the area. Foreign companies have not made any commitments to explore the area until the territorial dispute is settled or the claimants come to terms on joint development.

If the prospect of large reservoirs of oil are not enough to tempt nations into action over the Spratly Islands, the fact the South China Sea is one of the world’s most productive areas for commercial fishing would further persuade littoral states to press their sovereignty claims. In 1988, for example, the South China Sea accounted for eight percent of the total world catch, a figure which was fully expected to rise. In fact, the PRC has predicted that the South China Sea holds combined fishing and oil and gas resources worth one trillion dollars. There have already been numerous clashes between the Philippines and other nations (particularly the PRC) over foreign fishing vessels in its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and the media regularly reports the arrest of Chinese fisherman.

To further underscore the global importance of the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands, the region is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. During the 1980s, at least two hundred and seventy ships passed through the Spratly Islands region every day and currently more than half of the world’s supertanker traffic (by tonnage) passes through the regions waters every year. Tanker traffic through the South China Sea is over three times greater than through the Suez Canal and five times more than the Panama Canal and twenty five percent of the world’s crude oil passes through the South China Sea.

There have been suggestions that the PRC has annexed and occupied islands not for resource exploitation but rather for surveillance reasons. For example, Mischief Reef would be an ideal site from which to observe United States naval vessels traveling through western Philippine waters. The PRC’s invasion of the islands may be aimed at opposing the ROC rather than the Philippines as the Spratlys lie across water essential to the ROC.

There have been occasional clashes between opposing navies over the Spratly Islands, including incidents in 1974 when South Vietnam lost control of the Paracel Islands to the PRC following a short naval battle (the Saigon government allowed western oil companies to explore in the area), in 1978 when China annexed six islets in a region controlled by Vietnam and on 10 April 1983 a German yacht was sunk after being fired upon. There has been no indication of responsibility regarding this action.

In response to growing concerns by coastal states regarding encroachments by foreign vessels on their natural resources, the United Nations convened the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 to determine the issue of international sea boundaries. In response to these concerns, it was resolved that a coastal state could claim two hundred nautical miles of jurisdiction beyond its land boundaries. However UNCLOS failed to address the issue of how to adjudicate on overlapping claims and so the future of the islands remains clouded.

In 1984, Brunei established an exclusive fishing zone, which encompasses Louisa Reef in the southern Spratly Islands, but has not publicly claimed the island.

In 1988 the PRC and Vietnam again clashed at sea over possession of Johnson Reef in the Spratlys, Chinese gunboats sank Vietnamese transport ships supporting a landing party of Vietnamese soldiers. The two countries normalized relations in 1991, and President Jiang Zemin subsequently made two trips to Vietnam. The two nations however still remain at loggerheads over the Spratlys.

In 1992 the PRC and Vietnam granted oil exploration contracts to U.S. oil companies covering areas in the Spratlys which overlapped. In May of that year China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Crestone Energy, based in Denver, Colorado in the United States of America, signed a cooperation contract to jointly explore the 25,155 km² Wan’an Bei-21 block in the Spratly area of the southwest portion of the South China Sea. CNOOC was to provide seismic and other data covering the contract area, which lies under 300-700 meters of water 1,764 kilometres south-southwest of Hong Kong. Crestone agreed to cover all costs and conduct more seismic surveys and drilling in the area. The contract was extended in 1999 after Crestone failed to complete the exploration. Crestone’s Wan’an Bei-21 contract in part covered Vietnam’s blocks 133 and 134, where PetroVietnam and ConocoPhillips Vietnam Exploration & Production, a unit of ConocoPhillips, agreed to jointly evaluate prospects in April 1992. This led to a confrontation between China and Vietnam, with each demanding that the other cancel its contract. The two countries have quietened down about the dispute recently.

Further escalation occurred in early 1995 when the Philippines discovered a primitive PRC military structure on Mischief Reef, one hundred and thirty nautical miles off the coast of Palawan, leading the Philippines government to issue a formal protest over PRC occupation of the reef on 8 February and the Philippine navy to arrest sixty two Chinese fisherman at Half Moon Shoal, eighty kilometres from Palawan. A week later, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos ordered military forces in the region strengthened following confirmation from surveillance pictures that the structures were of military design, refuting the official PRC claim that the structures were shelters for fishermen.

Following this dispute an ASEAN brokered agreement was reached between the PRC and ASEAN member nations whereby a nation would inform the others of any military movement within the disputed territory and that there would be no further construction on any feature. This agreement was promptly violated by the PRC and Malaysia; seven PRC naval vessels entered the area to repair ‘fishing shelters’ in Panganiban Reef that the PRC claimed had been damaged by storms and Malaysia erected a structure on Investigator Shoal and landed at Rizal Reef (both situated within the Philippines EEZ). In response the Philippines lodged formal protests, demanded the removal of the structures, increased naval patrols in Kalayaan and issued invitations to American politicians to inspect the PRC bases by plane.

By 1998 the Spratly Islands confrontation was listed as one of eight ‘flash-points’ around the world which had the potential for conflict as the PRC continued its creeping annexation of the islands, placing sovereignty markers or buoys on First and Second Thomas Shoals, Pennsylvania Shoal, Half Moon Shoal, and Sabina and Jackson Atoll. By late 1998, PRC bases had surrounded Philippine outposts and a British Royal Navy Commander analyzed pictures of the Chinese structures and announced that PRC “appeared to be preparing for war.” The relationship between Manila and Beijing had thus deteriorated to the point where war seemed imminent.

In the early 21st century, as part of foreign policy initiatives known as the new security concept and China’s peaceful rise, the People’s Republic of China became much less confrontational about the Spratlys. As such, the People’s Republic of China recently held talks with ASEAN countries aimed at realizing a proposal for a free trade area with the 10 members. The PRC and ASEAN also have been engaged in talks to create a code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the disputed islands. On 5 March 2002, an agreement was reached, setting forth the desire of the claimant nations to resolve the problem of sovereignty ’without further use of force’, although cynics have claimed that this agreement falls far short of the legally binding code of conduct they feel is necessary. The claimants in November 2002 signed the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which has eased tensions but falls short of a legally binding “code of conduct.”

Philippine claims on the Spratly Islands

While the Philippine claim to the Spratly Islands was first expressed in the United Nations General Assembly in 1946, Philippine involvement in the Spratlys did not begin in earnest until 1956, when on 15 May Philippine citizen Tomas Cloma proclaimed the founding of a new state, Kalayaan (Freedom Land). Cloma’s Kalayaan encompassed fifty three features spread throughout the eastern South China Sea, including Spratly Island proper, Itu Aba, Pagasa and Nam Yit Islands, as well as West York Island, North Danger Reef, Mariveles Reef and Investigator Shoal. Cloma then established a protectorate in July 1956 with Pagasa as its capital and Cloma as “Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Kalayaan State”. This action, although not officially endorsed by the Philippine government, was considered by other claimant nations as an act of aggression by the Philippines and international reaction was swift. Taiwan, the PRC, South Vietnam, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands lodged official protests (the Netherlands on the premise that it considered the Spratly Islands part of Dutch New Guinea) and Taiwan sent a naval task force to “liberate” the islands and establish a base on Itu Aba, which it retains to the present day.

Tomas Cloma and the Philippines continued to state their claims over the islands; in October 1956 Cloma travelled to New York to plead his case before the United Nations and the Philippines had troops posted on three islands by 1968 on the premise of protecting Kalayaan citizens. In early 1971 the Philippines sent a diplomatic note on behalf of Cloma to Taipei demanding Taiwan’s withdrawal from Itu Aba and on 10 July in the same year Ferdinand Marcos announced the annexation of the fifty three island group known as Kalayaan, although since neither Cloma or Marcos specified which fifty three features constituted Kalayaan, the Philippines began to claim as many features as possible. In April of 1972 Kalayaan was officially incorporated into Palawan province and was administered as a single “poblacion” (township), with Tomas Cloma as the town council Chairman and by 1992, there were twelve registered voters on Kalayaan. The Philippines also reportedly attempted to land troops on Itu Aba in 1977 to reclaim the island but were repelled by Taiwanese troops stationed on the island. There were no reports of casualties from the conflict.

The Philippines base their claims of sovereignty over the Spratlys on the issues of res nullius and geography. The Philippines contend Kalayaan was res nullius as there was no effective sovereignty over the islands until the nineteen thirties when France and then Japan acquired the islands. When Japan renounced their sovereignty over the islands in the Treaty of Peace in 1951, there was a relinquishment of the right to the islands without any special beneficiary. Therefore, argue the Philippines, the islands became res nullius and available for annexation. Philippine businessman Tomas Cloma did exactly that in 1956 and while the Philippines never officially supported Cloma’s claim, upon transference of the islands’ sovereignty from Cloma to the Philippines, the Philippines used the same sovereignty argument as Cloma did. The Philippine claim to Kalayaan on geographical bases can be summarised using the assertion that Kalayaan is distinct from other island groups in the South China Sea because:

It is a generally accepted practice in oceanography to refer to a chain of islands through the name of the biggest island in the group or through the use of a collective name. Note that Spratly (island) has an area of only 13 hectares compared to the 22 hectare area of the Pagasa Island. Distance-wise, Spratly Island is some 210nm off Pagasa Islands. This further stresses the argument that they are not part of the same island chain. The Paracels being much further (34.5nm northwest of Pagasa Island) is definitely a different group of islands.”

A second argument used by the Philippines regarding their geographical claim over the Spratlys is that all the islands claimed by the Philippines lie within their archipelagic baselines, the only claimant who can make such a statement. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stated that a coastal state could claim two hundred nautical miles of jurisdiction beyond its land boundaries. It is perhaps telling that while the Philippines is a signatory to UNCLOS, the PRC and Vietnam are not. The Philippines also argue, under Law of the Sea provisions, that the PRC can not extend its baseline claims to the Spratlys because the PRC is not an archipelagic state. Whether this argument (or any other used by the Philippines) would hold up in court is debatable but possibly moot, as the PRC and Vietnam seem unwilling to legally substantiate their claims and have rejected Philippine challenges to take the dispute to the World Maritime Tribunal in Hamburg.

PRC claims on the Spratly Islands

The PRC bases its claim to the islands on historical grounds. They state that the Spratly Islands have been an integral part of China for nearly two thousand years and point to ancient manuscripts claiming to refer to the Spratly Islands and remains of Chinese pottery and coins on the islands as proof. Using this argument, the PRC has claimed that the Philippines have “taken” 410 000 square kilometres of its traditional maritime boundary, having taken advantage of the PRC’s poor condition during its exile from international affairs. A number of analysts question the veracity of these claims however;

“It is unconvincing to say that the findings of Han dynasty coins and ceramics in the Spratlys can alone be a justifiable basis of a Chinese 1990s territorial claim. The existence of these artifacts may merely indicate that there were trade relations between China and Southeast Asia rather than showing that there were Chinese settlements in the disputed Spratlys.”

It has also been noted there are eleven principal Chinese historical texts in existence, none of which confirming that the Spratly Islands were ever under Chinese control. No Chinese official is recorded as having visited the island and temporary contacts by fisherman are not enough to justify any claim based on historical grounds.

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Last updated: 05-06-2005 14:44:10