This is the Spratly Islands. It is made up of over a 100 islands, atolls, shoals and reefs. Land area is less than 5 square kilometers right at the center of West Philippine Sea. So why do regional players such China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines squabbling over it? And what is the interest of the United States of America in the issue? The simple answer is the potential for oil and natural gas in the area. The more complex geopolitical answer is power projection.
Let me explain.
Chinese and Taiwanese claim historical ownership
The Chinese claim ownership of the Spratly Islands based on their long history governing the area. In fact, dates to the Xia dynasty. Beijing contends that it is well within its administrative area prior to 1933. It has mapped the area. It was the first to name and use and patrol the South China Sea.
The website, Spratlys.org has a timeline of events. According to the website, China first discovered the Spratly islands around 200BC. It contends that circa 206BC to 24AD, the Parcel Islands, The Spratlys and the Pratas Island were known to Han Dynasty Chinese geographers, and that in 23-220AD, Yang Fu of the East Han Dynasty even made references to what they call, the Nansha Islands, which is what the Chinese call the Spratly Islands. After World War II, China also established military bases on Itu Aba, and made it part of Guangdong Province.
Itu Aba island is currently administered by the Republic of China.
Vietnam claims ownership by history
Hanoi claims ownership over the Spratlys and contends that Beijing while having records of the Spratlys did not exercise sovereignty over the islands prior to 1933. Vietnam argues that their emperors have administered the Spratlys since 1800s.
The Philippines contends that prior to 1956, the islands were without sovereign authority (terra nullius). When Filipino Thomas Cloma claimed ownership, and renamed it “Kalayaan,” he was appropriating it for the Philippines. To add to this, the Philippines’ partial claim is based on geography, and that the islands lie within its 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone accorded to it by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Philippines did not lay a formal claim to the island until 1978, however the Philippine military has had garrisons in the area.
According to Xavier Furtado, UNCLOS in itself is flawed. Furtado argues that it was handicapped by the attitudes of those who signed the agreement. Further he says, that to settle the Spratly Island dispute ought to take into consideration the historical claimants, and that neither Beijing and Hanoi find their historical claims disregarded by UNCLOS to be “flawed”.
The Spratly Islands is right at the heart of International waters. These waters are commonly used to connect the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.
Washington’s interest of course is to keep these lanes open for international trade. Also that the US Navy remains the biggest navy to patrol these waters.
The situation is further complicated by Washington’s closeness with Hanoi and Manila.
Part of Beijing’s reason to control the Spratly is of course to reclaim what they deem is their historical ownership of the area. Another reason stems from nationalistic pride. They wish to control the area which they call, “South Sea” of China. The People’s Liberation Army and Navy can not go toe-to-toe with the US Navy. But it is clear that it intends to exercise jurisdiction over the South China Sea.
Now that China is on the rise, it wishes to flex its muscle from time to time. What better way to do so than to exercise its claims over the Spratly islands?
West Philippine Sea versus South China Sea
The Philippines recently announced that on its maps, South Sea will be renamed, “West Philippine Sea”. This distinction is to further strengthen Manila’s claim over the Spratlys.
Manila’s claim isn’t for the entire Spratlys unlike the other claimants like China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Spratly Island dispute is about national pride as well as the potential economic resources of the area. It is further complicated by historical claims that do not jibe well with modern international law. Nation States act in their own self-interest. It always has, and it always will.
From the Philippine perspective, what is interesting to note is how this issue could galvanize Manila to expand its own laughable Armed Forces. Its renaming of the South China Sea to West Philippine Sea should be solidified by an active naval force in the area.
From the Chinese perspective, the Spratly islands represents a cornerstone in exercising its national pride. It intends to exercise its claims to show the world it is now a big boy. Call this a Napoleonic complex writ on an international scale but it describes Beijing’s motivation everything from reaching space to economic power.
The situation is also further complicated by the economic potential of the area. Prospects for Oil and Natural gas are high. This adds a gleam to the eyes of claimants to the Spratlys. The regional economies would all benefit from laying down claim to this economic find. So a race to it brings substantial economic fallout for the victor.
The Spratly Island dispute is a complicated affair that will not see a resolution sometime soon, but it will remain the Elephant in the room that would help define regional geopolitics.
Image credit: National Geographic, public domain.