By: Varshitha Eddula, Research Analyst, GSDN
A group of corals, reefs, atolls in the South China Sea are named after a British whaling captain Richard Spratly, who sighted Spratly Island in 1843. The name of the island eventually passed to the entire archipelago. Recently these islands garnered media attention because Manila opened the disputed islet, called Kalayaan Island Group (of the West Philippine Sea) to tourism, which is located in the region of Spratly Islands. The tour lets the visitors sail crystal clear waters, takes them along white sand beaches and gives them a view of lush green jungle. Game fishing is also offered.
Spratly Islands are a large group of reefs, shoals, atolls, and small islets in the South China Sea. They are spread out in the ocean measuring some 409,000 square km. They are located north of Malaysia and are midway between Vietnam and the Philippines. There is neither indigenous habitation nor permanent human settlement due to its remoteness and exposure to harsh tropical storms. It is strategically located near several primary shipping lanes in the South China Sea. There are scattered garrisons occupied by military personnel of several states.
The Historical Development
Mariners avoided this region due to many reefs and shoals and was often called ‘dangerous ground’ on their charts. And soon all this changed. For a brief time between 1933 to 1939, the islands came under the French Occupation. It was the Japanese that developed a submarine base during WWII. After Japan renounced its claims, countries like China, Vietnam, and the Philippines declared themselves as the rightful authority of these islands. The island’s strategic location was the primary significance before 1970 to aid in war efforts.
Prior to World War II, the islands were largely unimportant. Fishermen went in search of fish, turtle meat, seashells guano (that is used as fertiliser). Miners looked for phosphate deposits on these islands.
The 1970s changed things forever. The discovery of oil in many regions accompanied by record high oil prices created an incentive among nations for oil exploration. Soon, oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Malaysia and Brunei. Then Russians discovered oil fields off the coast of North Vietnam. In 1973, the Philippines set off on oil exploration in Palawan. The discovery of oil fields around the islands led nations to turn their attention to the islands. Today, countries like China estimate billions of barrels of oil around these islands.
These islands have been disputed with varying degrees of intensity for over a few decades now. They continue to be a point of dispute between six different states to this day. The Spratly Islands are claimed in whole or part by The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Nine-Dash Line and Other Claims
China claims by far the largest portion of territory in an area demarcated by its so-called “nine-dash line”. The line comprises nine dashes which extends hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
However, critics say China has not been specific about what exactly its claim includes, and that the nine-dash line that appears on Chinese maps encompassing almost the entirety of the South China Sea includes no coordinates. It is also not clear whether China claims only land territory within the nine-dash line, or all the maritime space within it as well.
Vietnam disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracel and the Spratly Islands since the 17th Century and has the documents to prove it.
The other major claimant to the area is the Philippines, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping.
Both the Philippines and China also lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) – a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China. Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratly Islands.
Chronology of Serious Clashes
The most serious trouble in recent decades has flared between Vietnam and China, and there have also been stand-offs between the Philippines and China. Some of the incidents include:
In 1974, the Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops. In 1988, the two sides clashed in the Spratlys, with Vietnam again coming off worse, losing about 60 sailors.
In early 2012, China and the Philippines engaged in a lengthy maritime stand-off, accusing each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal. Unverified claims that the Chinese navy sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations in late 2012 led to large anti-China protests on Vietnam’s streets.
In January 2013, Manila said it was taking China to a UN tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims. In May 2014, the introduction by China of a drilling rig into waters near the Paracel Islands led to multiple collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.
In June 2019, Manila accused a Chinese trawler of ramming a Filipino fishing boat with 22 people on board. The Filipinos were rescued by the Vietnamese. In early 2023, the Philippines said Chinese vessels have been shining lasers at Filipino boats to temporarily blind their crew. They also accuse the Chinese of dangerous maneuvers by sailing too close or blocking the Filipinos’ path.
The Resources and Shipping Lane Angle
Oil reserves: The islands are prone to military clashes and disputes that there have not been any drilling expeditions to date to find measurable quantities of oil. US Geological Survey estimates that the islands may contain 1 to 2 billion barrels.
Natural Gas: The estimates range from 24 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) to 2000 Tcf of natural gas resources within the Spratly Islands. If the same rule of thumb were applied to the natural gas as in the oil equation, it implies that 900 Tcf of natural gas would yield 1.8 Tcf per year. While these are only estimates it still shows why the Spratly Islands could be so valuable to its claimants, most especially China. With Asia nearly completely dependent on foreign oil, discovery of proven reserves will at least temporarily relieve Asian dependency.
Shipping Lane: The importance of the Spratly Islands as a shipping lane as well adds another layer to the dispute. Nearly all of the Asian oil supply originates from Africa and the Middle East, which passes through the Strait of Malacca into the South China Sea. It has now become one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes and annually accounts for over half of the global merchant fleet in tonnage passing through it. The strait is not just important regionally but globally too, with half of the global merchant fleet traveling through the South China Sea. Conflicts that disrupt the shipping lanes are unacceptable to any party within and outside the Spratly Island dispute.
The Exclusivity Factor
According to UNCLOS, the EEZ is an “area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal state and the rights and freedoms of other states are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention”.
The advantages gained from an EEZ is a source of tension. Coastal state has sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, the seabed and subsoil and with regard to activities for the economic exploitation and explorations such as energy production. Also, the state has jurisdiction to establish structures, conduct research and conserve the marine environment. The Spratly Islands lie near the EEZ of several claimant states.
Ownership over the Spratly Islands will ensure that the respective countries territorial seabed would extend not from their mainland coastline but from the island’s coastline. This factor has also been a point of contention in the South China Sea.
The Resolution Effect
On November 04, 2002 in Phnom Penh, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed by the 10 foreign ministers of ASEAN countries and China. The parties explicitly undertook in this declaration, “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned”.
In March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands. In July 2012, China (PRC) announced that it is open to launching discussions on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, but called for all parties to exercise self-restraint in keeping with the spirit of previous declarations and United Nation conventions.
The Philippines has sought international arbitration instead. In 2013, it announced it would take China to an arbitration tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims. In July 2016, the tribunal backed the Philippines’ case, saying China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. China had boycotted the proceedings and called the ruling “ill-founded” further saying it will not be bound by it.
There are a lot of things at stake for the increased confrontations among countries. From wanting to control the oil and natural gas reserves to shipping lanes to expanding their EEZ zones. A group of remote islands where once only fishermen ventured has now been dragged to the International Court. Yet, the rulings have not been agreed by parties. Countries have also used soft power to extend territorial claims. Therefore, countries have to come together to find solutions to the Spratly Island dispute which will ensure peace and security and promote regional cooperation.