Spratly Islands dispute

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The Spratly Islands dispute is a territorial dispute over the ownership of the Spratly Islands, a group of islands located in the South China Sea, and associated "maritime features" in the area, (e.g. reefs, banks, cays, etc.)[1] States making claims to various parts of the area include: Brunei, China (People's Republic of China), Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan (Republic of China), and Vietnam. All except Brunei occupy some of the maritime features.

The Spratly Islands are important for a number of reasons: the Spratly area holds potentially significant, but largely unexplored, reserves of oil and natural gas; it is a productive area for world fishing; it is one of the busiest areas of commercial shipping traffic; and surrounding countries would get an extended continental shelf if their claims were recognised. Only China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), and Vietnam have made claims based on historical sovereignty of the islands.[2] The Philippines, however, claims part of the area as its territory under UNCLOS, an agreement parts of which[3] have been ratified by the countries involved in the Spratly islands dispute.

Reasons for the dispute[edit]

There are multiple reasons why the neighboring nations in particular, and the rest of the world in general, would be interested in the Spratly Islands.


In 1968, oil was discovered in the region.[4] The Geology and Mineral Resources Ministry of the People's Republic of China (PRC) has estimated that the Spratly area holds oil and natural gas reserves of 17.7 billion tons (1.60 × 1010 kg),[citation needed] compared to the 13 billion tons (1.17 × 1010 kg) held by Kuwait, placing it as, potentially, the fourth largest reserve bed in the world. These large potential reserves have assisted in intensifying the territorial claims of the neighboring countries.

In 1968, the Philippines started to take their territorial claims more seriously and stationed troops on three islands which had been claimed by the adventurer Tomas Cloma as part of Freedomland.[5] In 1973, Vietnamese troops were stationed on five islands.[6]

On 11 March 1976, the first major Philippine oil discovery occurred off the coast of Palawan, near the Spratly Islands territory. In 2010, these oil fields supplied 15% of all petroleum consumed in the Philippines.[7] In 1992, the PRC and Vietnam granted oil exploration contracts to U.S. oil companies that covered overlapping areas in the Spratlys. In May 1992,[8] 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 square kilometres (9,712 sq mi) section of the southwestern South China Sea that includes Spratly Island areas.[9] Part of the Crestone's contract covered Vietnam's blocks 133 and 134, where PetroVietnam, PetroStar Energy(USA) 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.

Commercial fishing[edit]

The region is one of the world's most productive areas for commercial fishing. In 1988, for example, the South China Sea accounted for 8% of the total world catch, a figure which rose to 35% in 2010.[10] The PRC has predicted that the South China Sea holds combined fishing and oil and gas resources worth one trillion dollars.[citation needed] There have already been numerous clashes between the PRC and the Philippines, PRC and Vietnam, and between other nations over "foreign" fishing vessels in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and the media[which?] regularly report the arrest of Chinese fishermen. In 1984, Brunei established an exclusive fishing zone encompassing Louisa Reef in the southeastern Spratly Islands.[11]

Commercial shipping[edit]

The region is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. During the 1980s, at least 270 ships passed through the Spratly Islands region each day. 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; 25% of the world's crude oil passes through the South China Sea.[citation needed]


There have been a number of notable clashes in the Spratly Islands, some of which are discussed in the following articles:

International Law[edit]

Extended continental shelf claims, 2009[edit]

Via UNCLOS, the United Nations provided for countries with coastlines to submit claims to the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS),[12] (for their continental shelf to be extended beyond 200 nautical miles of their shores), by 13 May 2009. A total of 48 nations made full claims, and dozens more made preliminary submissions.[13] Two of the submissions made to the CLCS addressed claims in the South China Sea (SCS) - one by Vietnam for a claim over the northern portion of the SCS (which included the Paracel Islands), and another jointly by Vietnam and Malaysia for a joint claim over a "defined area" in the middle of the SCS between the two countries, which included part of the Spratly Islands. Brunei made a preliminary submission notifying of its intention to claim a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from its shores.[14]

China (PRC) immediately issued protests over the two submissions and called on the United Nations not to consider them. It also issued a stern warning to countries not to claim the islands which it said were its sovereign territory.[13][15]

Philippine protests to ITLOS, 2011[edit]

On 23 May 2011, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned the visiting Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea. In March, the Philippines complained that Chinese patrol boats had harassed a Philippine oil exploration vessel in disputed waters near the Spratlys, and subsequently filed a formal protest at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).[16]

Philippines submission to ITLOS, 2013[edit]

On 22 January 2013, the Philippines submitted a case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).[17]

Philippine Justice Antonio T. Carpio states that the case is solely a maritime dispute, and not territorial in nature. The Philippines seeks clarification from the tribunal as to whether China's 9-dashed line can negate the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone as guaranteed under the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China is a signatory. As part of the case, the Philippines also seeks clarification on whether rocks above water only at high tide, (such as Scarborough Shoal), generate a 200-nautical-mile (370 km; 230 mi) EEZ, or only a 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) territorial sea. Clarification of whether China can appropriate low-tide elevations, such as the Mischief Reef and the Subi Reef within the Philippines' EEZ, have also been included in the case. "The Philippines is not asking the tribunal to delimit by nautical measurements overlapping EEZs between China and the Philippines. The Philippines is also not asking the tribunal what country has sovereignty over an island, or rock above water at high tide, in the West Philippine Sea."[18]

Diplomatic moves[edit]

1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea[edit]

1995 Agreement[edit]

Following a 1995 dispute between the PRC and the Philippines, an ASEAN-brokered agreement was reached between the PRC and ASEAN member nations whereby one country would inform the other of any military movement within the disputed territory, and that there would be no further construction.[citation needed]

The agreement was promptly violated by PRC and Malaysia: claiming storm damage, seven PLA Navy vessels entered the area to repair "fishing shelters" in Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef); Malaysia erected a structure on Investigator Shoal and landed at Rizal Reef (Commodore Reef). 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.[citation needed]

Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, 2002[edit]

On 4 November 2002 in Phnom Penh, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea[19] was signed by the 10 foreign ministers of ASEAN countries and China (PRC). 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".[19] The parties also undertook to exercise self-restraint with activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, including refraining from inhabiting the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features. The parties pledged to carry out confidence building measures, such as: holding dialogues and exchange of views as appropriate between their defense and military officials; ensuring just and humane treatment of all persons who are in danger or distress; notifying on a voluntary basis other parties concerned of any impending joint / combined military exercise; and exchanging, on a voluntary basis, relevant information. The parties may also explore or undertake cooperative activities such as: marine environmental protection; marine scientific research; safety of navigation and communication at sea; search and rescue operations; and combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy, armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms.

The declaration eases tensions, but falls short of a legally binding code of conduct.

Code of Conduct in the South China Sea[edit]

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. This announcement has been criticized by many neighboring states because of the contradictions seen in the Scarborough Shoal at that time where China has established de facto control.[20]

On 2 August 2012, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring that China's July 2012 actions to unilaterally assert control of disputed territories in the South China Sea "are contrary to agreed upon principles with regard to resolving disputes and impede a peaceful resolution."[21]

History of the Spratly Islands[edit]

Malaysia has militarily occupied three islands that it considers to be within its continental shelf. Swallow Reef (Layang Layang / Terumbu Layang / Pulau Layang Layang) was under control on 1983 and has been turned into an island through a land reclamation which now also hosts a dive resort.[22] The Malaysian military also occupies Ardasier Reef (Terumbu Ubi), and Mariveles Reef (Terumbu Mantanani).[23]

Since 1992, Malaysia and Vietnam have agreed to jointly develop areas around these disputed islands.[24] Malaysia has made it known that its policy is to maintain peace and resolve disputes using diplomacy. It trusts that China is not an aggressive country and believes China only wants its presence to be known. Malaysia has said that it is always monitoring all of the actions made by countries involved in the dispute.[25]

The Republic of China (ROC), which ruled mainland China before 1949, has been confined to Taiwan since 1949. The People's Liberation Army and the Republic of China Armed Forces are both stationed in several islands, including the largest, Taiping Island - occupied by ROC.

In 1947, the ROC government renamed 159 islands in the area and published the Map of the South China Sea Islands. The ROC was the first government to establish a physical presence in the Spratly Islands. It has occupied Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratlys, constantly since 1956.[26]

In 1958, North Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng sent a formal note to Zhou Enlai.

In 1958, the People's Republic of China, having taken over mainland China and having left the Republic of China with control over Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and some outlying islands, issued a declaration of a 12 nautical mile limit territorial waters that encompassed the Spratly Islands. North Vietnam's prime minister, Phạm Văn Đồng, sent a formal note to PRC's Premier Zhou Enlai to recognize these claims; and stated that the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) respects the decision on the 12 nautical mile limit territorial waters, although South Vietnam continued to claim sovereignty over the islands.

In the 19th century, Europeans found that Chinese fishermen from Hainan annually sojourned on the Spratly islands for part of the year, while in 1877 it was the British who launched the first modern legal claims to the Spratlys.[27][28]

When the Spratlys and Paracels were being surveyed by Germany in 1883, China issued protests against them.[29] China sent naval forces on inspection tours in 1902 and 1907 and placed flags and markers on the islands. The Qing dynasty's successor state, the Republic of China, claimed the Spratly and Paracel islands under the jurisdiction of Hainan.[30]

The Spratlys and the Paracels were conquered by Japan in 1939. Japan administered the Spratlys via Taiwan's jurisdiction and the Paracels via Hainan's jurisdiction.[27] The Paracels and Spratlys were handed over to Republic of China control from Japan after the 1945 surrender of Japan,[31] since the Allied powers assigned the Republic of China to receive Japanese surrenders in that area.[30]

The Republic of China then garrisoned Itu Aba (Taiping) island in 1946 and posted Chinese flags and markers on it along with Woody island in the Paracels, France tried, but failed to make them leave Woody island.[27] The aim of the Republic of China was to block the French claims.[30][32] The Republic of China drew up the map showing the U shaped claim on the entire South China Sea, showing the Spratly and Paracels in Chinese territory, in 1947.[30]

After pulling out its garrison in 1950 when the Republic of China evacuated to Taiwan, when the Filipino Tomas Cloma uprooted an ROC flag on Itu Aba laid claim to the Spratlys and, the Republic of China (now Taiwan) again regarrisoned Itu Aba on 1956.[33] In 1946, the Americans reminded the Philippines at its independence that the Spratlys was not Philippine territory, both to not anger Chiang Kai-shek in China and because the Spratlys were not part of the Philippines per the 1898 treaty Spain signed with America.[27] The Philippines then claimed the Spratlys in 1971 under President Marcos, after Taiwanese troops attacked and shot at a Philippine fishing boat on Itu Aba.[34]

Taiwan's garrison from 1946-1950 and 1956-now on Itu Aba represents an "effective occuption" of the Spratlys.[34][35] China established a coastal defense system against Japanese pirates or smugglers.[36]

North Vietnam recognized China's claims on the Paracels and Spratlys during the Vietnam War as it was being supported by China. Only after winning the war and conquering South Vietnam did North Vietnam retract its recognition and admitted it recognized them as part of China in order to receive aid from China in fighting the Americans.[37]

Under President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan stated that "legally, historically, geographically, or in reality", all of the South China Sea and Spratly islands were Taiwan's territory and under Taiwanese sovereignty, and denounced actions undertaken there by Malaysia and the Philippines, in a statement on July 13, 1999 released by the foreign ministry of Taiwan.[38] Taiwan and China's claims "mirror" each other; during international talks involving the Spratly islands, China and Taiwan have cooperated with each other since both have the same claims.[34][39]

Taiwan and China are largely strategically aligned on the Spratly islands issue, since they both claim exactly the same area, so Taiwan's control of Itu Aba (Taiping) island is viewed as an extension of China's claim.[29] Taiwan and China both claim the entire island chain, while all the other claimaints only claim portions of them. China has proposed cooperation with Taiwan against all the other countries claiming the islands. Taiwanese lawmakers have demanded that Taiwan fortify Itu Aba (Taiping) island with weapons to defend against the Vietnamese, and both China and Taiwanese NGOs have pressured Taiwan to expand Taiwan's military capabilities on the island, which played a role in Taiwan expanding the island's runway in 2012.[40] China has urged Taiwan to cooperate and offered Taiwan a share in oil and gas resources while shutting out all the other rival claimaints. Taiwanese lawmakers have complained about repeated Vietnamese aggression and trespassing on Taiwan's Itu Aba (Taiping), and Taiwan has started viewing Vietnam as an enemy over the Spratly Islands, not China.[41] Taiwan's state run oil company CPC Corp's board director Chiu Yi has called Vietnam as the "greatest threat" to Taiwan.[40] Taiwan's airstrip on Taiping has irritated Vietnam.[42] China views Taiwan's expansion of its military and airstrip on Taiping as benefiting China's position against the other rival claimaints from southeast Asian countries.[35] China's claims to the Spratlys benefit from legal weight because of Taiwan's presence on Itu Aba, while America on the other hand has regularly ignored Taiwan's claims in the South China Sea and does not include Taiwan in any talks on dispute resolution for the area.[43]

Taiwan performed live fire military exercises on Taiping island in September 2012; reports said that Vietnam was explicitly named by the Taiwanese military as the "imaginary enemy" in the drill. Vietnam protested against the exercises as violation of its territory and "voiced anger", demanding that Taiwan stop the drill. Among the inspectors of the live fire drill were Taiwanese national legislators, adding to the tensions.[44]

In 2010 it was reported that former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad believed Malaysia could profit from China's economic growth through cooperation with China.[45] In 2011, Mahathir said that China was not a threat to anyone and was not worried about aggression from China, accusing the United States of provoking China and trying to turn China's neighbors against China.[46] Malaysia displayed no concern over China conducting a military exercise at James Shoal in March 2013.[47]

In August 2013, Malaysia suggested that it might work with China over their South China Sea claims and ignore the other claimants, with Malaysian Defence Minister Hishamuddin Hussein saying that Malaysia had no problem with China patrolling the South China Sea, and telling ASEAN, America, and Japan that "Just because you have enemies, doesn't mean your enemies are my enemies."[48]

The editorial of the Taiwanese news website "Want China Times" accused America for being behind the May 2014 flareup in the South China Sea, saying that Vietnam rammed a Chinese vessel on May 2 over an oil rig drilling platform and the Philippines detained 11 Chinese fishermens occurred because of Obama's visit to the region and that they were incited by America "behind the scenes". "Want China Times" claimed America ordered Vietnam on May 7 to complain about the drilling platform, and noted that a joint military exercise was happening at this time between the Philippines and America, and also noted that the American "New York Times" newspaper supported Vietnam.[49]

Claims and their basis[edit]

Map of various countries occupying the Spratly Islands


Brunei claims the part of the South China Seas nearest to it as part of its continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 1984, Brunei declared an EEZ encompassing the above-water islets it claims in Louisa Reef.[11][23] Brunei does not practice military control in the area.

Basis of Brunei's claim[edit]

Brunei's claims to the reef are based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[50][51] Brunei states that the southern part of the Spratly Islands chain is actually a part of its continental shelf, and therefore a part of its territory and resources.[52]


Malaysia has militarily occupied three islands that it considers to be within its continental shelf. Swallow Reef (Layang Layang / Terumbu Layang / Pulau Layang Layang) was under control on 1983 and has been turned into an island through a land reclamation which now also hosts a dive resort.[22] The Malaysian military also occupies Ardasier Reef (Terumbu Ubi), and Mariveles Reef (Terumbu Mantanani).[23]

Basis of Malaysia's claim[edit]

Malaysia's claims are based upon the continental shelf principle, and have clearly defined coordinates within the limits of its EEZ defined in 1979.[22][53] However, this argument requires that the islands were res nullius.[23][54]

China, the Republic of China, and the People's Republic of China[edit]

Map of the South China Sea Islands, by Ministry of the Interior, ROC, 1947.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) claim all of the Spratly Islands as part of China and had a historical naval presence.

The Republic of China (ROC), which ruled mainland China before 1949 and has been confined to Taiwan since 1949, also claims all of the Spratly Islands.

Basis for PRC's and ROC's claims[edit]

China claims to have discovered the islands in the Han Dynasty in 2 BC. The islands were claimed to have been marked on maps compiled during the time of Eastern Han dynasty and Eastern Wu (one of the Three Kingdoms). Since the Yuan dynasty in the 12th century, several islands that may be the Spratlys have been labeled as Chinese territory,[55] followed by the Ming Dynasty[56] and the Qing dynasty from the 13th to 19th Century.[57] In 1755,[57][58] archaeological surveys the remains of Chinese pottery and coins have been found in the islands and are cited as proof for the PRC claim.[59]

Chinese fishermen have used the islands since 200 BC.[29]

In the 19th century, Europeans found that Chinese fishermen from Hainan annually sojourned on the Spratly islands for part of the year, while in 1877 it was the British who launched the first modern legal claims to the Spratlys.[27][28]

When the Spratlys and Paracels were being surveyed by Germany in 1883, China issued protests against them. The 1887 Chinese-Vietnamese Boundary convention signed between France and China after the Sino-French War said that China was the owner of the Spratly and Paracel islands.[29] China sent naval forces on inspection tours in 1902 and 1907 and placed flags and markers on the islands. The Qing dynasty's successor state, the Republic of China, claimed the Spratly and Paracel islands under the jurisdiction of Hainan.[30]

The Spratlys and the Paracels were conquered by Japan in 1939. Japan administered the Spratlys via Taiwan's jurisdiction and the Paracels via Hainan's jurisdiction.[27] The Paracels and Spratlys were handed over to Republic of China control from Japan after the 1945 surrender of Japan,[31] since the Allied powers assigned the Republic of China to receive Japanese surrenders in that area.[30]

After WW2 ended, the Republic of China was the "most active claimaint". The Republic of China then garrisoned Itu Aba (Taiping) island in 1946 and posted Chinese flags and markers on it along with Woody island in the Paracels, France tried, but failed to make them leave Woody island.[27] The aim of the Republic of China was to block the French claims.[30][32] The Republic of China drew up the map showing the U shaped claim on the entire South China Sea, showing the Spratly and Paracels in Chinese territory, in 1947.[30]

Taiwan's garrison from 1946-1950 and 1956-now on Itu Aba represents an "effective occuption" of the Spratlys.[34][35]

The Philippines[edit]

An 1801 map of the East Indies Isles which shows the placement of the Spratly islands. Most of the names have changed since then.

The Philippines' claims are based on sovereignty over the Spratlys on the issues of Res nullius and geography. The Philippines contend their claim 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 according to the San Francisco Treaty, there was a relinquishment of the right to the islands without any special beneficiary. Therefore the islands became Res nullius and available for annexation, according to the claim.

In 1956, a private Filipino citizen, Tomas Cloma, unilaterally declared a state on 53 features in the South China Sea, calling it "Freedomland". As the Republic of China moved to occupy the main island in response, Cloma sold his claim to the Philippine government, which annexed (de jure) the islands in 1978, calling them Kalayaan. On June 11, 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the Spratly Islands (referred to therein as the Kalayaan Island Group) as Philippine territory.[60]

The Philippine claim to Kalayaan on a geographical basis can be summarized using the assertion that Kalayaan is distinct from other island groups in the South China Sea, because of the size of the biggest island in the Kalayaan group.[citation needed] 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 its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This argument assumes that the islands were res nullius.[61] The Philippines also contend, under maritime law that the People's Republic of China can not extend its baseline claims to the Spratlys because the PRC is not an archipelagic state.

Various factions of the Muslim Moro people are waging a war for independence against the Philippines. The website of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of Nur Misuari declared its support for China against the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute, calling both China and the Moro people as victims of Philippine colonialism, and noting China's history of friendly relations with the Moros.[62] The MNLF website also denounced America's assistance to the Philippines in their colonization of the Moro people in addition to denouncing the Philippines claims to the islands disputed with China, and denouncing America for siding with the Philippines in the dispute, noting that in 1988 China "punished" Vietnam for attempting to set up a military presence on the disputed islands, and noting that the Moros and China maintained peaceul relations, while on the other hand the Moros had to resist other colonial powers, having to fight the Spanish, fight the Americans, and fight the Japanese, in addition to fighting the Philippines.[63]


Territorial monument of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) on Southwest Cay, Spratly Islands, defining the cay as part of Vietnamese territory (to Phước Tuy Province). Used since 22 August 1956 until 1975, when replaced by another one from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (successor state after the Fall of Saigon)

Vietnam's response to China's claim is that Chinese records on Qianli Changsha and Wanli Shitang are in fact records about non-Chinese territories.[64] For example, Qianli Changsha and Wanli Shitang were referred to in the ancient Chinese texts Ling Wai Dai Da[65] and Zhu Fan Zhi[66] as being in the Sea of Jiaozhi, Jiaozhi being the old name for a Chinese province in modern-day northern Vietnam, or as writings on foreign countries.

Vietnam's view is that the Chinese records do not constitute the declaration and exercise of sovereignty and that China did not declare sovereignty over the Spratlys until after World War II.

On the other hand, Vietnam claims the Spratlys based on international law on declaring and exercising sovereignty.

Vietnam People's Navy Naval Infantry marching on Spratly island

Vietnamese claims that it has occupied the Spratly and the Paracel islands at least since the 17th century, when they were not under the sovereignty of any state, and that they exercised sovereignty over the two archipelagos continuously and peacefully until they were invaded by Chinese armed forces.[67] In Phủ biên tạp lục (撫邊雜錄, Miscellaneous Records of Pacification in the Border Area) by the scholar Lê Quý Đôn, Hoàng Sa (Paracel Islands), and Trường Sa (Spratly Islands) were defined as belonging to Quảng Ngãi District. In Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ (大南ー統全圖), an atlas of Vietnam completed in 1838, Trường Sa was shown as Vietnamese territory.[68] Vietnam had conducted many geographical and resource surveys of the islands.[68] The results of these surveys have been recorded in Vietnamese literature and history published since the 17th century. After the treaty signed with the Nguyễn Dynasty, France represented Vietnam in international affairs and exercised sovereignty over the islands.[68]

The Cairo Declaration, drafted by the Allies and China towards the end of World War II, listed the territories that the Allies intended to strip from Japan and return to China. Despite China being among the authors of the declaration, this list did not include the Spratlys.[69] Vietnam's response to China's claim that the Cairo Declaration somehow recognized the latter's sovereignty over the Spratlys is that this claim has no basis in fact.

At the San Francisco Conference on the peace treaty with Japan, the Soviet Union proposed that the Paracels and Spratlys be recognized as belonging to China. This proposal was rejected by an overwhelming majority of the delegates. On July 7, 1951, Tran Van Huu, head of the Bảo Đại Government's (State of Vietnam) delegation to the conference declared that the Paracels and Spratlys were part of Vietnamese territory. This declaration met with no challenge from the 51 representatives at the conference.[68]

The text of the Treaty of San Francisco listed the Spratlys as not part of the list of territories to be returned to China.[70]

After the French left, the government of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) exercised sovereignty over the islands, by placing border markers on the Spratlys to indicate South Vietnamese sovereignty over the archipelago. Up to the end of the Vietnam War the Republic of Vietnam Navy held military control over the majority of the Spratly Islands until 1975, when North Vietnamese troops attacked South Vietnamese troops and occupied the islands. After the Vietnam War, the unified Vietnam SRV (Socialist Republic of Vietnam) continued to claim the Spratly islands as an indisputably integral part of Vietnam, accordingly the Pham Van Dong DRV notice to the PRC in 1958 had not ceded the RVN and consequently the SRV claims, hence that Notice became of no effect on the RVN/SRV rights.

The islands occupied by Vietnam are organized as a district of Khanh Hoa Province. At the 12th National Assembly Election held early in Trường Sa, the people and soldiers also voted for their local district government for the first time. For the first time, Trường Sa is organized like a normal inland district, with a township (Trường Sa) and two communes (Sinh Tồn and Song Tử Tây). Forty nine people were elected to the communes' people's councils.[citation needed]

In July 2012 the national assembly of Vietnam passed a law demarcating Vietnamese sea borders to include the Spratly and Paracel Islands.[71][72]

Champa historically had a large presence in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese broke Champa's power in an invasion of Champa in 1471, and then finally conquered the last remnants of the Cham people in an invasion in 1832. A Cham named Katip Suma who received Islamic education in Kelantan declared a Jihad against the Vietnamese, and fighting continued until the Vietnamese crushed the remnants of the resistance in 1835. The Cham organization Front de Libération du Champa was part of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, which waged war against the Vietnamese for independence in the Vietnam War along with the Montagnard and Khmer Krom minorities. The last remaining FULRO insurgents surrendered to the United Nations in 1992. Vietnam has settled over a million ethnic Vietnamese on Montagnard lands in the Central Highlands. The Montagnard staged a massive protest against the Vietnamese in 2001, which led to the Vietnamese to forcefully crush the uprising and seal the entire area off to foreigners.

The Vietnamese government fears that evidence of Champa's influence over the disputed area in the South China Sea would bring attention to human rights violations and killings of ethnic minorities in Vietnam such as in the 2001 and 2004 uprisings, and lead to the issue of Cham autonomy being brought into the dispute, since the Vietnamese conquered the Hindu and Muslim Cham people in a war in 1832, and the Vietnamese continue to destroy evidence of Cham culture and artifacts left behind, plundering or building on top of Cham temples, building farms over them, banning Cham religious practices, and omitting references to the destroyed Cham capital of Song Luy in the 1832 invasion in history books and tourist guides. The situation of Cham compared to ethnic Vietnamese is substandard, lacking water and electricity and living in houses made out of mud.[73]

The Cham in Vietnam are only recognized as a minority, and not as an indigenous people by the Vietnamese government despite being indigenous to the region. Both Hindu and Muslim Chams have experienced religious and ethnic persecution and restrictions on their faith under the current Vietnamese government, with the Vietnamese state confisticating Cham property and forbidding Cham from observing their religious beliefs. Hindu temples were turned into tourist sites against the wishes of the Cham Hindus. In 2010 and 2013 several incidents occurred in Thành Tín and Phươc Nhơn villages where Cham were murdered by Vietnamese. In 2012, Vietnamese police in Chau Giang village stormed into a Cham Mosque, stole the electric generator, and also raped Cham girls.[74] Cham Muslims in the Mekong Delta have also been economically marginalized and pushed into poverty by Vietnamese policies, with ethnic Vietnamese Kinh settling on majority Cham land with state support, and religious practices of minorities have been targeted for elimination by the Vietnamese government.[75]

Tabular listing of features showing country possessions[edit]


1870- British naval captain James George Meads established the micronation The Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads.
1900- Vietnam's Nguyễn Dynasty continued to assert that the state Bac Hai Company had exercised Vietnam's sovereignty in the Spratlys since the 18th century.[76]
1927 The French ship SS De Lanessan conducted a scientific survey of the Spratly Islands.
1930 France launched a second expedition with the La Malicieuse, which raised the French flag on an island called Île de la Tempête. Chinese fishermen were present on the island, but the French made no attempt to expel them.
1933 Three French ships took control of nine of the largest islands and declared French sovereignty over the archipelago to the great powers including the UK, US, China and Japan, according to the principles found in the Berlin convention. France administered the area as part of Cochinchina.

Japanese companies applied to the French authority in Cochichina for phosphate mining licenses in the Spratlys.

1939 The Empire of Japan disputed French sovereignty over the islands, citing that Japan was the first country to discover the islands. Japan declared its intention to place the island group under its jurisdiction. France and the United Kingdom protested and reasserted French sovereignty claims.
1941 Japan forcibly occupied the island group and remained in control until the end of World War II, administering the area as part of Taiwan.

A Japanese submarine base was established on Itu Aba Island.

1945 After Japan's surrender at the end of World War II, the Republic of China claimed the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Republic of China sent troops to Itu Aba Island; forces erected sovereignty markers and named it Taiping Island.
1946 France dispatched warships to the islands several times, but no attempts were made to evict Chinese forces.
1947 China produced a map with 9 undefined dotted lines, and claimed all of the islands within those lines.[77] France demanded the Chinese withdraw from the islands.
1948 France ceased maritime patrols near the islands and China withdrew most of its troops.
1951 At the 1951 San Francisco Conference on the Peace Treaty with Japan, the Soviet Union proposed that the Spratlys belonged to China. This was overwhelmingly rejected by the delegates. The delegates from Vietnam, which at that time was a French protectorate, declared sovereignty over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, which was not opposed by any delegate at the conference. China did not attend the conference and was not a signatory of the treaty.
1956 Tomas Cloma, director of the Maritime Institute of the Philippines, claimed sovereignty over the northwestern two-thirds of the Spratly Islands, naming his territory "Kalaya'an" ("Freedomland"). The People's Republic of China, the Republic of China, France, South Vietnam, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands all issued protests. The Republic of China and South Vietnam launched naval units to the islands, though South Vietnam left no permanent garrison. Later in the year, South Vietnam declared its annexation of the Spratly Islands as part of its Phước Tuy Province.
1958 The People's Republic of China issued a declaration defining its territorial waters which encompassed the Spratly Islands. North Vietnam's prime minister, Phạm Văn Đồng, sent a formal note to Zhou Enlai, stating that the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam respects the decision on the 12 nautical mile limit of territorial waters. Both the South Vietnamese government and the communist revolutionary movement in South Vietnam continued to assert that the Spratlys belonged to Vietnam.
1961-63 South Vietnam established sovereignty markers on several islands in the chain.
1968 The Philippines sent troops to three islands on the premise of protecting Kalayaan citizens, and announced the annexation of the Kalayaan island group.
1971 Malaysia issued claims to some of the Spratly Islands.
1972 The Philippines incorporated the Kalayaan islands into its Palawan province.
1975 The unified Vietnam declared claims over the Spratly Islands.
1978 A presidential decree from the Philippines outlined territorial claims to the Kalayaan portion of the islands.
1979 Malaysia published a map of its continental shelf claim, which includes twelve islands from the Spratly group.

Vietnam published a white paper outlining its claims to the islands and disputing those of the other claimants.

1982 Vietnam published another white paper, occupied several of the islands and constructed military installations.

The Philippines occupied several more islands and constructed an air strip.[where?]

1983 Malaysia occupied Swallow Reef (Layang Layang), in the south of the Spratly Islands. A naval base and diving resort was later built at this location on reclaimed land.
1984 Brunei established an exclusive fishing zone encompassing the Louisa Reef and neighboring areas in the southeastern Spratly Islands.
1986 The first Philippine-Vietnam Joint Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea was conducted aboard the RPS Explorer.
1987 The People's Republic of China conducted naval patrols in the Spratly Islands and established a permanent base.[where?]
1988 PRC warships and Vietnamese transport ships clashed at the South Johnson Reef. Over 70 Vietnamese were killed and two Vietnamese transport ships were sunk. The PRC gained control of some of the Spratly reefs.
1995 The Philippine government revealed that a PRC military structure was being built at the Mischief Reef. Philippine President Fidel Ramos ordered increased patrols of the Philippine-controlled areas; the incident lead to numerous arrests of Chinese fishermen and naval clashes with PLAN vessels.
1999 A Philippine World-War-II-vintage vessel (LT 57 Sierra Madre) ran aground on the Second Thomas Shoal. Despite initial PRC demands for its removal, and subsequent PRC offers for its free removal, the vessel remains aground on the reef.[78][79]
2008 Taiwan's President became the first head of state from the claimant countries to visit the Spratly islands. His visit sparked criticism from other claimants.
2009 The Office of the Philippine President enacted the "Philippine Baselines Law of 2009" (RA 9522). The law classifies the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal as a "regime of islands under the Republic of the Philippines." This means that the Philippines continues to lay claim over the disputed islands.[80]

In May, two submissions were made to the UN's Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS): a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam claims jurisdiction over their respective continental shelves out to 200 nautical miles; a submission by Vietnam claims jurisdiction over an extended shelf area. The People's Republic of China and the Philippines both protested the moves stating that they violated agreements made with regards to the islands.[81][82]

2011 On 18 May 2011, China Mobile announced that its mobile phone coverage had expanded to the Spratly Islands, under the rationale that it can allow soldiers stationed on the islands, fishermen and merchant vessels within the area to use mobile services, and can also provide assistance during storms and sea rescues. The deployment of China Mobile's support over the islands took roughly one year to fulfil.[83]

In May, PRC patrol boats attacked and cut the cables of Vietnamese oil exploration ships near the Spratly Islands. The incidents sparked several anti-China protests in Vietnam.

In June, the PLA navy conducted three days of exercises, including live fire drills, in the disputed waters. This was widely seen as a warning to Vietnam, which had also conducted live fire drills near the Spratly Islands. PRC patrol boats fired repeated rounds at a target on an apparently uninhabited island, as twin fighter jets streaked in tandem overhead. 14 vessels participated in the maneuvers, staging antisubmarine and beach landing drills aimed at "defending atolls and protecting sea lanes."[84]

2014 On 6 May 2014, Philippines police arrested 11 Chinese turtle poachers on board the Qiongqionghai near Half Moon Shoal.[85]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Note that most of the "maritime features" in this area have at least six names: The "International name", usually in English; the "Chinese name", sometimes different for PRC and ROC, (and also in different character-sets); the Vietnamese, Philippine and Malaysian names, and also, there are alternate names, (e.g. Spratly Island is also known as Storm Island), and sometimes names with "colonial" origins (French, Portuguese, Spanish, British, etc.). No doubt the Japanese also named features during their occupation / control of the islands during World War II.
  2. ^ Bowring, Philip (6 May 1994). "China Is Getting Help In a Grab at the Sea". New York Times. Retrieved 29 October 2013. 
  3. ^ "Chronological lists of ratifications of, accessions and successions to the Convention and the related Agreements as at 29 October 2013". Division for Ocean affairs and the Law of the sea. United Nations. Retrieved 19 May 2014. 
  4. ^ Note that the oil and gas discovered in the region so far has been in shallow / coastal-shelf waters, whereas (with notable exceptions), the majority of waters in the area are very deep, and unexplored. (One of the exceptions is the Reed Bank area.) Source: "South China Sea". US Energy Information Administration (eia). 7 February 2013. p. 13. Retrieved 7 June 2014. 
  5. ^ Veloso Abueva, Jose (1999). Admiral Tomas Cloma, father of maritime education and discoverer of freedomland / Kalayaan Islands. Center for Leadership, Citizenship and Democracy, National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines (Diliman, Quezon City). 
  6. ^ Guo, Rongxing. Territorial Disputes and Resource Management. p. 229. 
  7. ^ TED (Trade and Environment Database), Mandala Project (December 1997). "Spratly Islands Dispute". ICE Case Studies. American University. 
  8. ^ Lai To, Lei (1999). Chian and the South China Sea dialogues. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-275-96635-5. 
  9. ^ Kate, Daniel (27 May 2011). "South China Sea Oil Rush Risks Clashes as U.S. Emboldens Vietnam on Claim". Bloomberg News. Retrieved 29 October 2013. 
  10. ^ World review of fisheries and aquaculture. Rome: FAO- Food and Agriculture Organisation. 2012. p. 4. 
  11. ^ a b Lily B. Libo-on (13 June 2003). "When All Else Has Failed, Diplomacy Sets In". Borneo Bulletin.  (Archived from the original on 2005-01-07).
    Additionally, pages 48 and 51 of "The Brunei-Malaysia Dispute over Territorial and Maritime Claims in International Law" by R. Haller-Trost, Clive Schofield, and Martin Pratt, published by the International Boundaries Research Unit, University of Durham, UK, points out that this is a "territorial dispute" between Brunei and other claimants over the ownership of one above-water feature – Louisa Reef.
  12. ^ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), www.un.org
  13. ^ a b "China asserts sea border claims". British Broadcasting Corporation. May 13, 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-11. 
  14. ^ Refer to the CLCS website for more information on Brunei's preliminary submission.
  15. ^ "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu's remarks on Vietnam's Submission on Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf in South China Sea". Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People's Republic of China. 10 May 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-11. [dead link]
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  18. ^ Caprio argues:
    Coastal states are entitled to a 200-nautical-mile (370 km; 230 mi) Exclusive Economic Zone. This is only subject to delimitation in case of overlapping EEZs with other coastal states. Under UNCLOS, EEZs are measured from a baseline drawn from the coast of continental land, or from an island capable of human habitation. It means that rocks submerged during high tide cannot be used as the basis to draw an EEZ. This basic requirement is taken from the universal international law principle that the "land dominates the sea". This implies that areas in the seas and oceans can be claimed and measured only from land; a continental land or island "capable of human habitation of its own".
    Under UNCLOS, full sovereignty over its 12 nautical miles (22 km; 14 mi) territorial sea is given to coastal states. Beyond the territorial sea, the coastal state has only specific "sovereign rights" up to 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) from its baselines. All other states do not enjoy the application or the benefit of these "sovereign rights". The term "sovereign rights" refers to specific rights that do not amount to full "sovereignty".
    A coastal state's "sovereign rights" to its EEZ beyond the territorial sea refer principally to the exclusive right to exploit the living and non-living resources in the area, without other sovereign rights like the right to deny freedom of navigation and over-flight, which a coastal state can deny in its territorial sea."
    Carpio, Antonio (9 March 2014). "What's at stake in our case vs China". Rappler. Retrieved 25 March 2014. 
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    In a statement released on 3 August 2012, United States Department of State deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that the US has a "national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea." He added that the US does not take a position on competing territorial claims and that it urges all involved parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law. He further said the US is urging all parties to take steps to lower tensions in keeping with the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
    Patrick Ventrell (August 3, 2012). "South China Sea". United States Department of State. Retrieved February 3, 2013. 
    The United States has supported the Philippines and Vietnam by expanding military ties.
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]