Spratly Islands 101

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.

After World War II, Japan under the Treaty of San Francisco renounced all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands as well as the Paracel Islands.

Philippines claim

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”.


Washington’s interest

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.


Power projection

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.

Cocoy Dayao

Cocoy is the Chief Technology Officer of Lab Rats Technica, a Digital Consulting company that specialises in DevOps, iOS, and Web Apps, E-Commerce sites, Cybersecurity and Social Media consulting. He is a technology enthusiast, political junkie and social observer who enjoys a good cup of coffee, comic books, and tweets as @cocoy on twitter.

Cocoy is also the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of the ProPinoy Project.

Cocoy considers himself to be Liberal.

  • claudimer


  • victoria1313

    After the election in u.s. when the leadership is change then we could see if something will take place, we all know the black shadow of C.I.A. making chaos to other nations

    • UPnnGrd

      are you one of those who say that the C.I.A.  is also inside Pilipinas Malakanyang or inside Pilipinas Congress?    Or maybe some of the hacenderos are C.I.A.,  ganuon ba ang kuwento?     What about China agents…  who are Mainland China agents inside Pilipinas,  huwag mong sabihin na wala.

      But if a Republican wins the USA White House, the winner better not be Newt Gingrich. If Newt wins, the C.I.A. checks “donated” to its “friends” may start to bounce. Newt-head has a habit, apparently, of a trail of bounced checks. The Pilipinas slogan “.. your credit is good, but we need cash” may have to be revived by the C.I.A. friends inside whererver they are working.

  • victoria1313

    philippines only had recent claim, that means to say not belong to philippines. it is very very clear only recently discover by thomas cloma because thomas cloma thinked no one had been in the island. but the recent leader think it would benefits the philippines so, he insisted and self changing the name of SOUTH CHINA SEA to west phil.name without authorized by international law and then he went to uncle sam in u.s. to asked help for insertion, we all know that the United Nation is in new york  which control by american, naturally they will backing up because they have common interest on oil. This is the TRUTH. 

  • Anonymous

    Mr. J-ag that is only you free assumption you never know what would happen in the future. What do you think the western countries will allow china over the top of them never it ever be happen in that way two years from now you will  see what the world expect from western countries and what from Asian countries will be happen for those countries not side on the western they will be to the turmoil and those countries are side on them will enjoy prosperity, look what happen some arab countires it might be happen as well in the east. just bear in mind that western countires are only allowing china to be develop and then let em down thats all.

  • J_ag

    The oldest established state on the planet is China. Over 2,000 years old.
    The Philippines is still trying to establish its own state. The elite of this country subsists on its loyalty to its colonizers. First the Spanish and then the Americans. The elite today in the country are descendants of Filipino -Chinese and Chinese families. Hence the loyalty will soon shift to the new Chinese economic power.


    “Chinese negotiators,” Kissinger observed, “use diplomacy to weave together political, military and psychological elements into an overall strategic design…. American diplomats by contrast generally prefer… to be flexible; it feels an obligation to break deadlocks with new proposals—unintentionally inviting new deadlocks to elicit new proposals…. Our tendency is to have an agenda of 10 different points each one to be dealt with separately. They have one big game plan. We are always in a hurry for closure, anxiously watching the minutes tick away. The Chinese value patience. measuring time in millennia….” We urge our officials and the designated negotiators to study the Chinese well, be patient, and do things responsibly.


    • Cocoy


  • Thai anton

    USA biggest trade partner is China, They hold the most dollar reserve in the world, to impede trade is the last thing China will do, China is all about
    Trade. They’ve claimed those territory before RP start claiming those islands ,China Maritime Surveilance fleet have around 300 ships and 10 aircraft patrolling South China Sea. ,Philippine Navy /Coast guard most busy themselves around northern Philippines patrolling RP Boundary with Taiwan , where they catch Taiwanese fisherman and HULIDAP them.

    • KG

      Speaking of arrresting fishermen have you seen the news last night about the vietnamesse ships using Filipino flags..there problem

      masyado sila high tech: me gps sila ;me proof tuloy kung nasan sila nung nahuli sila.

  • Bert

    In an actual military conflict/confrontation between China and the Philippines or between China and Vietnam the USA has no other choice but to side with the Philippines or with Vietnam and will surely involve its military powers in any shooting war between the contending parties. Here’s why:

    The South China Sea is a passageway for international trade as Cocoy has pointed out. This particular sea lane is a lifeblood of America’s survival as a superpower, vital to its economic and military interests. If, by virtue of China’s vast military supremacy over Vietnam’s and Philippine’s feeble military capabilities China forced its way to control all of the South China Sea including continental shelf, islands, islets, atoll, and reefs belonging to the Philippines and Vietnam, China in effect controls the passageway, thereby choking the traffic inside the sea lane.

    The USA will not allow that. That simple.

  • Thai anton

    Raja humabol circa 1942 ,that old rusty thing should be scrap, it’s also laden with asbestos which is cancer causing .and you call that RP flag ship
    Ukay Ukay defense.

    • Cocoy

      I’m all for national pride and all that, but yeah, I have to agree with you on this.

    • KG

      A few months from now a new product from UK(Ukay ukay) will replace BRP Rajah Humabon it will be called BRP gregorio del Pilar.It was Commisioned circa late sixties. At least lampas twenty years…after world war II.
      If they don’t want to decommission Humabon by then ewan ko na.(at least dalawa na ang frigrates natin)

      Until then …to paraphrase secretary carandang :the Rajah Humabon’s deployment is a way to show them it’s ours..

    • Everyone’s got it all wrong. The Raja Humabon is only the first wave. It will be successively followed by a tank, a driller, a hovercraft, and a fighter jet we have in storage, as China refuses to budge on its stance. Once all five are there, they will volt in and become our last line of defense. China’s ass = kicked. You heard it here first.

      • KG

        Voltes Faaaayvah!

        • KG

          sa kabilang blog superman ,aquaman at batman.dito voltes V

          dapat. up to date…….

          In brightest day, in blackest night,
          No evil shall escape my sight
          Let those who worship evil’s might,
          Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!

          Avenger’s asemble!

          • KG

            I mean Avengers.sorry po.

          • KG

            Anader rong ispeling…..


    • Bert

      Observe carefully the movements of the US military in Iraq and in Afghanistan in the coming days and you will be seeing a major upheaval there akin to the shifting sand of the desert and then the swirling desert sandstorm will blow them away not to the homeland but to the China Sea. This from my most reliable crystal ball.

  • Proud Pinoy

    We just deployed our destroyer, the BRP Rajah Humabon, to the area. Watch out China! Don’t mess with the Filipino fighting spirit.

    • Doutrou

       And don’t ever come near to the frigate or they die of tetanus (kalawang) LOL!

  • UP nn grad

    Saying also “…we will raise taxes” is when you know that Presi-Noynoy has gone beyond just making media-pogi-point announcements about “strengthening the Armed Forces”. This is my opinion.

    I still have a question —- should Congress not complain — isn’t it oversteppping??? — when Presi-Noynoy takes money out of a congressionally-allocated rural-farms project and then spend the money on a racetrack or on a soldiers housing project?

  • J_ag

    Why fuss over the new attempts of China to reassert its power. She knows that time is on her side. All of S.E. Asia will come under the economic umbrella of China similarly to what happened to Latin America and Mexico when the U.S. was at its height.

    China plans generations ahead…

    The political establishment here plans for the next elections and so on and so forth.

  • J_ag

    Economist are projecting that S.E. Asia and a lot of countries in Asia will be under the renminbi reserve system within another generation.

    The world be using a multipolar reserve system with a largely diminished role for the dollar to allow for the renminbi to take a predomiant role most especially in Asia