Spratly Islands

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Spratly Islands
Chinese name
Pinyin Nánshā Qúndǎo
Simplified Chinese 南沙群岛
Traditional Chinese 南沙群島
literally southern sands archipelago
Filipino/Tagalog name
Filipino alphabet Kalayaan
literally freedom
Malay/Indonesian name
Rumi Kepulauan Spratly
literally Spratly islands
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet Quần Đảo Trường Sa
Chu nom 群島長沙
literally long sands archipelago

The Spratly Islands 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, whose true extent is unknown and disputed. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the entire group of islands, while Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines each claim various parts. Several of the nations involved have soldiers stationed in the Spratlys and control various installations on different islands and reefs. Taiwan occupies one of the largest islands, Itu Aba. In February 1995, the PRC occupied Mischief Reef, creating a substantial political crisis in Southeast Asia, especially with the Philippines. In early 1999, these disputes escalated as the Philippines claimed that the PRC was building military installations on the reef. Although the disputes have calmed to some degree, they still remain one of the most plausible scenarios for a major East Asian war involving the PRC or a smaller war between other claimants, a scenario depicted by Tom Clancy in his novel SSN

Contents

Geography and economic development

  • Coordinates: Template:Coor dm
  • Area (land): less than 5 km²
    • note: includes 100 or so islets, coral reefs, and seamounts scattered over an area of nearly 410,000 km² of the central South China Sea
  • Coastline: 926 km
  • Political Divisions: People's Republic of China: Part of Hainan province; Philippines: Part of Palawan province; Vietnam: Khanh Hoa province; Malaysia: Part of Sabah
  • 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. These islands are strategically located near several primary shipping lanes.

Colonization

The first possible recorded human interaction with the Spratly Islands dates back as far as 3BCE. This is based on the discovery that Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen mainly from districts of Hainan and Guangdong or Old Champa kingdom of Vietnam had been visiting the Spratly Islands, together with other South China Sea Islands for fishing annually. During the Qing Dynasty of China, 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 showed little interest in the islands. Most of the English names for the islands, isles and reefs were from the Chinese or Vietnamese fishermen. German boats surveyed in 1883 the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands but withdrew the survey eventually after receiving protests from the Qing Dynasty.

Ancient Vietnamese geographical maps record Bãi Cát Vàng (Golden Sandbanks, referring to both Paracel and Spratly Islands) as Vietnamese territory as early as the 17th century. In Phủ Biên Tạp Lục (Frontier Chronicles) by the scholar Lê Quý Đôn, Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa were defined as belonging to Quảng Ngãi District. He described it as where sea products and shipwrecked cargoes were available to be collected. Vietnamese text written in the 17th century referenced government-sponsored economic activities during the Le Dynasty, 200 years earlier. The Vietnamese government conducted several geographical surveys of the islands in the 18th century.

Ancient chinese geographical maps record but do not show these islands as Chinese territory.

In the 1930s, France claimed the Spratly and Paracel Islands on behalf of its then-colony Vietnam. It occupied a number of the Spratly Islands, including Itu Aba, and built weather stations on two, and administered them as part of French Indochina. This occupation was protested by the Chinese Nationalist government because France admitted that they found Chinese fishermen there when the French war ships visited the nine islands. The Chinese fishermen also tore the French flag after the ships left the islands. Following that, Japan occupied some of the islands during World War II, and used the islands as a submarine base for campaigns in Southeast Asia. During the occupation, these islands were called Shinnan Shoto (新南諸島), literally the New Southern Islands, and put under the governance of Taiwan together with the Paracel Islands (西沙群岛). Following the defeat of Japan, the Kuomintang (nationalist) claimed the whole Spratly Islands (including Itu Aba) and accepted the Japanese surrender on the islands. Japan renounced all claims to the islands in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. In the treaty with Republic of China, Japan again renounced all claims to the islands together with the Paracels, Pratas & other islands captured from China. However, the Kuomintang withdrew from the Spratly and Paracel Islands when they were defeated by the forces of the opposing Communist Party of China in 1949.

When the French left Vietnam, the naval units of the South Vietnamese government took over in Truong Sa.

Political dispute

Image:Spratly & Paracel Islands.gif 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 has estimated that the Spratly area holds oil and natural gas reserves of 17.7 billion tons (1.60 × 1010 kg), as compared to the 13 billion tons (1.17 × 1010 kg) held by Kuwait, placing it as the fourth largest reserve bed in the world. Naturally, these large reserves assisted in intensifying the situation and propelled the territorial claims of the neighbouring countries. 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 account for fifteen percent of all petroleum consumed in the Philippines.

The claimants to sovereignty have not awarded offshore concessions in the islands for fear of provoking an immediate clash. 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.

An additional motive is the region's role as one of the world’s most productive areas for commercial fishing. In 1988, for example, the South China Sea accounted for eight percent of the total world catch, a figure which has certainly risen. 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 report the arrest of Chinese fishermen.

The region is also 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 each day, and currently more than half of the world’s supertanker traffic, by tonnage, passes through the region’s 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 through the Panama Canal; 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. 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 occupation of the islands may be also be aimed at opposing the ROC rather than the Philippines as the Spratlys lie across water essential to the ROC. It could also simply be part of the PRC's efforts to announce its solidifying regional hegemony.

There have been occasional naval clashes over the Spratly Islands. In 1974, after South Vietnam had allowed Western oil companies to explore the Paracel Islands, the PRC reacted by seizing control of them following a short naval battle; in 1988, China similarly annexed another six islets in a region otherwise controlled by Vietnam. An incident involving a civilian vessel occurred on April 101983, when a German yacht was fired on and sunk. No responsibility has yet been indicated for 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 encompassing Louisa Reef in the southern Spratly Islands, but has not publicly claimed the island. Then, 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, but the two nations remain at loggerheads over the Spratlys' future.

In 1992, the PRC and Vietnam granted oil exploration contracts to U.S. oil companies that covered overlapping areas in the Spratlys; and in May 1992, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Crestone Energy (a U.S. company based in Denver, Colorado) signed a cooperation contract for the joint exploration of the Wan'an Bei-21 block, a 25,155 km2 section of the southwestern South China Sea that includes Spratly Island areas. CNOOC was to provide seismic and other data regarding the seabed in the contract area, while Crestone agreed to cover all costs and conduct follow-up seismic surveys and drilling in the area. The contract was extended in 1999 after Crestone failed to complete the exploration. Part of the Crestone's contract covered Vietnam’s blocks 133 and 134, where PetroVietnam and ConocoPhillips Vietnam Exploration & Production, a unit of ConocoPhillips, agreed to evaluate prospects in April 1992. This led to a confrontation between China and Vietnam, with each demanding that the other cancel its contract.

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. This prompted the Philippines government to issue a formal protest over the PRC occupation of the reef and the Philippine navy to arrest sixty-two Chinese fishermen at Half Moon Shoal, eighty kilometres from Palawan. A week later, following confirmation from surveillance pictures that the structures were of military design, then Philippine President Fidel Ramos ordered military forces in the region strengthened. The PRC had claimed 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. The agreement was promptly violated by the PRC and Malaysia. Claiming storm damage, seven PRC naval vessels entered the area to repair "fishing shelters" in Panganiban Reef. Malaysia erected a structure on Investigator Shoal and landed at Rizal Reef, both places 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, 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 the Sabina and Jackson atolls, the Spratly Islands area was listed as one of eight flashpointsTemplate:Fact for conflict in the world. By late 1998, PRC bases had surrounded the Philippines' outposts. A British Royal Navy Commander analyzed pictures of the Chinese structures and announced that PRC "appeared to be preparing for war"Template:Fact. The relationship between Manila and Beijing had 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 PRC became much less confrontational about the Spratly Islands. The PRC recently held talks with ASEAN countries aimed at realizing a proposal for a free trade area between the ten countries involved. 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"Template:Fact. In November 2002, a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed, easing tensions but falling 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 occupy 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 the ROC's withdrawal from Itu Aba and on 10 July in the same year Ferdinand Marcos announced the annexation of the 53 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 occupy the island but were repelled by ROC troops stationed on the island. There were no reports of casualties from the conflict. In 2005, a cellular phone base station was erected by the Philippines' Smart Communications on Pagasa Island.

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 1930s when France and then Japan acquired the islands. When Japan renounced their sovereignty over the islands in the San Francisco Peace Treaty 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."

No Chinese official is recorded as having visited the island and temporary contacts by fishermen are not enough to justify any claim based on historical grounds. However, many official records and maps dating back to Han, Yuan, Qing Dynasties and Republic of China did include the Spratly Islands in Chinese territory. (See the Chinese version of this page for document details and dates.)

Vietnamese claims on the Spratly Islands

The Vietnamese also claims the island on historical grounds and on the continental shelf principle. Ancient Vietnamese geographical maps record Bải Cát Vàng (Golden Sandbanks, referring to both Paracel and Spratly Islands) as Vietnamese territory as early as the 17th century. In Phủ Biên Tập Lục by the scholar Lê Quý Đôn, Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa were defined as belonging to Quảng Ngải District. In Đại Nam Thống Nhất Toàn Đồ, an atlas of Vietnam completed c. 1838, Trường Sa was shown to be Vietnamese territory. Vietnam had conducted many geographical and resource surveys of the islands. The results of these surveys have been recorded in Vietnamese literature and history published since the 17th century. Moreover, after the treaty signed with the Nguyen Dynasty, France represented Vietnam's interests in international affairs and had exercised sovereignty over the islands on behalf of Vietnam.

On 7 July 1951, Tran Van Huu, head of the Bao Dai Government's delegation to the San Francisco Conference on the peace treaty with Japan declared that the archipelagoes of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa had long been part of Vietnamese territory. This declaration met with no challenge or reservation from the 51 representatives at the conference. After the French left, the South Vietnamese government had exercised sovereignty over the islands.

Vietnam currently occupies 21 islands. They are organized as a district of Khanh Hoa Province.

20th century timeline

1927 The French ship SS De Lanessan conducts a scientific survey of the Spratly Islands
1930 France launches a second expedition with the La Malicieuse, which raises the French flag on an island called Ile de la Tempete. Chinese fishermen are present on the island, but the French make no attempt to expel them.
1932 The Republic of China sends the French government a memorandum contesting their sovereignty over the Spratlys, based on the Chinese interpretation of the 1887 treaty ending the Sino-French War.
1933 Three French ships take control of nine of the largest islands and declare French sovereignty over the archipelago. France administers the area as part of Cochinchina. The Empire of Japan disputes French sovereignty over the islands, citing evidence of phosphate mining by private Japanese citizens.
1939 Japan declares its intention to place the island group under its jurisdiction. France and the United Kingdom protest and reassert French sovereignty claims.
1941 Japan forcibly occupies the island group and remains in control until the end of World War II, administering the area as part of Taiwan. A submarine base is established on Itu Aba.
1945 After Japan's surrender at the end of World War II, France and the Republic of China reassert claims on the Spratly Islands. China sends troops to the islands and landing forces erect sovereignty markers.
1946 France dispatches warships to the islands several times but no attempts are made to evict Chinese forces.
1947 France demands the Chinese withdraw from the islands.
1948 France ceases maritime patrols near the islands and China withdraws most of its troops.
1951 At the 1951 San Francisco Conference on the Peace Treaty with Japan, delegates from Vietnam – which, at that time, was still French-controlled – claim sovereignty over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands.
1956 Tomas Cloma, director of the Maritime Institute of the Philippines, claims sovereignty over much of the Spratly Islands, naming his territory "Kalaya'an" ("Freedomland"). The Republic of China, the People's Republic of China, South Vietnam, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands all issue protests. The Republic of China and South Vietnam launch naval units to the islands, though South Vietnam leaves no permanent garrison. North Vietnam supports the PRC's claims, declaring that "according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory." Later in the year, South Vietnam declares its annexation of the Spratly Isalnds as part of its Phuoc Tuy province.
1958 The People's Republic of China issues a declaration defining its territorial waters which encompasses the Spratly Islands. North Vietnam's prime minister, Pham Van Dong, sends a formal note to Zhou Enlai, stating that "The Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam respects this decision."
1961-3   South Vietnam establishes sovereignty markers on several islands in the chain.
1968 The Philippines sends troops to three islands on the premise of protecting Kalayaan citizens and announces the annexation of the Kalayaan island group.
1971 Malaysia issues claims to some of the Spratly Islands.
1972 The Philippines incorporates the Kalayaan islands into its Palawan province.
1975 A recently-unified Vietnam declares claims over the Spratly Islands.
1978 A presidential decree from the Philippines outlines territorial claims to the islands.
1979 Malaysia publishes a map of its continental shelf claim, which includes twelve islands from the Spratly group. Vietnam publishes a white paper outlining its claims to the islands and disputing those of the other claimants.
1982 Vietnam publishes another white paper, occupies several of the islands and constructs military installations. The Philippines also occupies several more islands and constructs an air strip.
1983 Malaysia occupies Swallow Reef (Layang Layng), one of the Spratly Islands. A naval base and resort was later built at this location.
1984 Brunei establishes an exclusive fishing zone encompassing the Louisa Reef in the southern Spratly Islands, but does not publicly claim the area.
1987 The People's Republic of China conducts naval patrols in the Spratly Islands and establishes a permanent base.
1988 PRC and Vietnamese ships clash over Johnson Reef. The PRC forces prevail and retain control of the area.

References

  • {{cite journal
| first = Todd C. | last = Kelly
| title=Vietnamese Claims to the Truong Sa Archipelago
| journal=Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies
| year=1999 | volume=3
| url = http://www.hawaii.edu/cseas/pubs/explore/v3/todd.html
}}

See also

External links

es:Spratly fr:Îles Spratley id:Kepulauan Spratly nl:Spratly-eilanden ja:スプラトリー諸島 pl:Wyspy Spratly fi:Spratlysaaret vi:Quần đảo Trường Sa zh:南沙群岛