|Location||South China Sea|
|Total islands||over 750|
|Major islands||Taiping Island
Sin Cowe Island
West York Island
|Area||less than 5 square kilometres (1.9 sq mi)|
|Coastline||926 kilometres (575 mi)|
|Highest point||on Southwest Cay
4 metres (13 ft)
|People's Republic of China|
|Prefecture-level city||Sansha, Hainan|
|Republic of China (Taiwan)|
|Population||no indigenous population|
|Vietnamese||Quần Đảo Trường Sa|
Gugusan Semarang Peninjau
|Tagalog||Kapuluan ng Kalayaan|
The Spratly Islands (Chinese name: Nansha islands, Vietnamese Name: Quần đảo Trường Sa, Filipino Name: Kapuluan ng Kalayaan) are a disputed group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays, and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia (Sabah), and southern Vietnam. They contain less than 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of land area spread over more than 425,000 square kilometers (164,000 square miles) of sea. The Spratlys are one of 3 archipelagos of the South China Sea which comprise more than 30,000 islands and reefs and which complicate governance and economics in that region of Southeast Asia. Such small and remote islands have little economic value in themselves but are important in establishing international boundaries. No native islanders inhabit the islands which offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves.
The seas around the Spratlys are known to mariners as the Dangerous Ground and are characterized by many low islands, sunken reefs, and atolls awash, with reefs often rising abruptly from ocean depths, all of which makes the area dangerous for navigation.
About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from the People's Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei has also claimed an exclusive economic zone in the southeastern part of the Spratlys encompassing just one area of small islands on Louisa Reef. This has led to escalating tensions between numerous countries over the disputed status of the islands.
Geographic and economic overview
- Area (land based): less than 5 km2 (1.9 sq mi) – includes 148 or so islets, coral reefs, and seamounts.
- (sea surface): 410,000 km2 (160,000 sq mi) of the central South China Sea
- Coastline: 926 km (575 mi)
- Political divisions: (in alphabetic order of claimants)
- Brunei: Part of Brunei's Exclusive Economic Zone;
- People's Republic of China: Administered by Sansha City, Hainan province;
- Malaysia: Part of the state of Sabah;
- Philippines: Part of Palawan province;
- Republic of China (Taiwan): Part of Kaohsiung municipality;
- Vietnam: Part of Khánh Hòa Province.
- Climate: tropical
- Terrain: flat
- Elevation extremes:
- lowest point: South China Sea (0 m)
- highest point: unnamed location on Southwest Cay (4 m)
- Natural hazards: serious maritime hazards because of numerous banks, reefs and shoals
The Spratly Islands contain almost no significant arable land and have no indigenous inhabitants, although twenty of the islands, including Taiping Island, the largest, are considered to be able to sustain human life. Natural resources include fish, guano, undetermined oil and natural gas potential. Economic activity includes commercial fishing, shipping, and tourism. Although, the region is undrilled and untested, extensive geophysical and geological studies and proximity to nearby oil- and gas-producing sedimentary basins suggests the potential for the presence of commercial oil and gas reserves within the Spratly Islands region Commercial exploitation of hydrocarbons has yet to be started and it is even possible that there may not be enough oil and gas reserves within the Spratly Islands region for commercial development. The Spratly Islands have at least three fishing ports, several docks and harbors, at least three heliports, at least four fortified platforms and six to eight airstrips. These islands are strategically located near several primary shipping lanes.
The Spratly Islands consist of reefs, banks, and shoals that consist of biogenic carbonate. These accumulations of biogenic carbonate lie upon the higher crests of major submarine ridges that are uplifted fault blocks, known by geologists as horsts. These horsts are part of a series of parallel and en echelon, half-grabens and rotated fault-blocks. The long axes of the horsts, rotated fault blocks, and half-grabens form well-defined linear trends that lie parallel to magnetic anomalies exhibited by the oceanic crust of the adjacent South China Sea. The horsts, rotated fault blocks, and the rock forming the bottoms of associated grabens consist of stretched and subsided continental crust that is composed of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous strata that include calc-alkalic extrusive igneous rocks, intermediate to acid intrusive igneous rocks, sandstones, siltstones, dark-green claystones, and metamorphic rocks that include biotite-muscovite-feldspar-quartz migmatites and garnet-mica schists.
The dismemberment and subsidence of continental crust into horsts, rotated fault blocks, and half-grabens that underlie the Spratly Islands and surrounding sea bottom occurred in two distinct periods. They occurred as the result of the tectonic stretching of continental crust along underlying deeply-rooted detachment faults. During the Late Cretaceous and Early Oligocene, the earliest period of tectonic stretching of continental crust and formation of horsts, half-grabens, and rotated fault-blocks occurred in association the rifting and later sea-floor spreading that created the South China Sea. During the Late Oligocene-Early Miocene additional stretching and block faulting of continental crust occurred within the Spratly Islands and adjacent Dangerous Ground. During and after this period of tectonic activity, corals and other marine life colonized the crests of the horsts and other ridges that lay in shallow water. The remains of these organisms accumulated over time as biogenic carbonates that comprise the current day reefs, shoals and cays of the Spratly Islands. Starting with their formation in Late Cretaceous, fine-grained organic-rich marine sediments accumulated within the numerous submarine half-grabens that underlie sea bottom within the Dangerous Ground region.
The geological surveys show localized areas within the Spratly Islands region are favorable for the accumulation of economic oil and gas reserves. They include thick sequences of Cenozoic sediments east of the Spratly Islands. Southeast and west of them, there also exist thick accumulations of sediments that possibly might contain economic oil an gas reserves lie closer to the Spratly Islands.
Little vegetation grows on these islands, which are subject to intense monsoons. Larger islands are capable of supporting tropical forest, scrub forest, coastal scrub and grasses. It is difficult to determine which species have been introduced or cultivated by humans. Taiping Island was reportedly covered with shrubs, coconut, and mangroves in 1938; pineapple was also cultivated here when it was profitable. Other accounts mention papaya, banana, palm, and even white peach trees growing on one island. A few islands which have been developed as small tourist resorts had soil and trees brought in and planted where there were none.
The islands that do have vegetation provide important habitats for many seabirds and sea turtles.
Both the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas, endangered) and the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata, critically endangered) formerly occurred in numbers sufficient to support commercial exploitation. These species reportedly continue to nest even on islands inhabited by military personnel (such as Pratas) to some extent, though it is believed that their numbers have declined.
Seabirds use the islands for resting, breeding, and wintering sites. Species found here include Streaked Shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas), Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Red-Footed Booby (S. sula), Great Crested Tern (Sterna bergii), and White Tern (Gygis alba). Little information is available regarding current status of the islands’ seabird populations, though it is likely that birds may divert nesting site to smaller, less disturbed islands. Bird eggs cover the majority of Song Tu, a small island in the eastern Danger Zone.
Unfortunately, this ecoregion is still largely a mystery. Scientists have focused their research on the marine environment, while the ecology of the terrestrial environment remains relatively unknown.
Political instability, tourism and the increasing industrialization of neighboring countries has led to serious disruption of native flora and fauna, over-exploitation of natural resources, and environmental pollution. Disruption of nesting areas by human activity or by introduced animals, such as dogs, has reduced the number of turtles nesting on the islands. Sea turtles are also slaughtered for food on a significant scale. The sea turtle is a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture and at times the military personnel are given orders to protect the turtles.
Heavy commercial fishing in the region incurs other problems. Though it has been outlawed, fishing methods continue to include the use of bottom trawls fitted with chain rollers. In addition, during a recent[timeframe?] routine patrol, more than 200 kg of Potassium cyanide solution was confiscated from fishermen who had been using it for fish poisoning. These activities have a devastating impact on local marine organisms and coral reefs.
Some interest has been taken in regard to conservation of these island ecosystems. J.W. McManus has explored the possibilities of designating portions of the Spratly Islands as a marine park. One region of the Spratly Archipelago named Truong Sa was proposed by Vietnam’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment (MOSTE) as a future protected area. The 160 km2 site is currently managed by the Khanh Hoa Provincial People’s Committee of Vietnam.
Military groups in the Spratlys have engaged in environmentally damaging activities such as shooting turtles and seabirds, raiding nests, and fishing with explosives. The collection of rare medicinal plants, collecting of wood and hunting for the wildlife trade are common threats to the biodiversity of the entire region, including these islands. Coral habitats are threatened by pollution, over-exploitation of fish and invertebrates, and the use of explosives and poisons as fishing techniques.
The first possible human interaction with the Spratly Islands dates back between 600 BCE to 3 BCE. This is based on the theoretical migration patterns of the people of Nanyue (southern China and northern Vietnam) and Old Champa kingdom who may have migrated from Borneo, which may have led them through the Spratly Islands.
Ancient Chinese maps record the "Thousand Li Stretch of Sands"; Qianli Changsha (千里長沙) and the "Ten-Thousand Li of Stone Pools"; Wanli Shitang (萬里石塘), which China today claims refers to the Spratly Islands. The Wanli Shitang have been explored by the Chinese since the Yuan Dynasty and may have been considered by them to have been within their national boundaries.  They are also referenced in the 13th century, followed by the Ming Dynasty. When the Ming Dynasty collapsed, the Qing Dynasty continued to include the territory in maps compiled in 1724, 1755,[source needs translation] 1767, 1810, and 1817.
A Vietnamese map from 1834 also includes the Spratly Islands clumped in with the Paracels (a common occurrence on maps of that time) labeled as Vạn Lý Trường Sa (萬里長沙), that is, a combination of the two Chinese names mentioned above (Wanli Changsha "Ten-Thousand Li Stretch of Sands"). According to Hanoi, old Vietnamese maps record Bãi Cát Vàng (Golden Sandbanks, referring to both Paracels and the Spratly Islands) which lay near the Coast of the central Vietnam as early as 1838. In Phủ Biên Tạp Lục (Frontier Chronicles) by the scholar Le Quy Don, Hoàng Sa, and Trường Sa were defined as belonging to the 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.
Despite the fact that China and Vietnam both made a claim to these territories simultaneously, at the time, neither side was aware that its neighbor had already charted and made claims to the same stretch of islands.
The islands were sporadically visited throughout the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries by mariners from different European powers (including Richard Spratly, after whom the island group derives its most recognizable English name). However, these nations showed little interest in the islands.
British naval captain James George Meads in the 1870s laid claim to the islands, proclaiming a micronation called Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads. Descendants of Meads have continued to claim legitimacy over the islands, and continue to attempt to claim ownership of the island's resources.
In 1883, German boats surveyed the Spratly and the Paracel Islands but eventually withdrew the survey, after receiving protests from Guangdong government representing Qing Dynasty. Many European maps before the 20th century do not even mention this region.
Military conflict and diplomatic dialogues
In 1904, a Chinese map entitled Map of all Chinese provinces from the Shanghai Publishing House showed that China stretched as far south as Hainan Island and that Paracel and Spratly Islands did not belong to China.
In 1933, France asserted its claims from 1887 to the Spratly and Paracel Islands on behalf of its then-colony Vietnam. It occupied a number of the Spratly Islands, including Taiping Island, built weather stations on two of the islands, and administered them as part of French Indochina. This occupation was protested by the Republic of China (ROC) government because France admitted finding Chinese fishermen there when French warships visited nine of the islands. In 1935, the ROC government also announced a sovereignty claim on the Spratly Islands. Japan occupied some of the islands in 1939 during World War II, and it used the islands as a submarine base for the occupation of Southeast Asia. During the Japanese occupation, these islands were called Shinnan Shoto (新南諸島), literally the New Southern Islands, and together with the Paracel Islands (西沙群岛), they were put under the governance of the Japanese colonial authority in Taiwan.
Japan occupied the Paracels and the Spratleys from February 1939 to August 1945.
In November 1946, the ROC sent naval ships to take control of the islands after the surrender of Japan. It had chosen the largest and perhaps the only inhabitable island, Taiping Island, as its base, and it renamed the island under the name of the naval vessel as Taiping. Also following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, the ROC re-claimed the entirety of the Spratly Islands (including Taiping Island) after accepting the Japanese surrender of the islands based on the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations. Japan had renounced all claims to the islands in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty together with the Paracels, Pratas and other islands captured from the Chinese, and upon these declarations, the government of the Republic of China reasserted its claim to the islands. The KMT force of the ROC government withdrew from most of the Spratly and Paracel Islands after they retreated to Taiwan from the opposing Communist Party of China due to their losses in the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The ROC quietly withdrew troops from Taiping Island in 1950, but then reinstated them in 1956 in response to Tomas Cloma's sudden claim to the island as part of Freedomland. As of 2013[update], Taiping Island is administered by the ROC.
In 1988, the Vietnamese and Chinese navies engaged in a skirmish in the area of Johnson South Reef (also called Yongshu reef in China and Mabini reef in Philippines).
It was unclear whether France continued its claim to the islands after WWII, since none of the islands, other than Taiping Island, was habitable. The South Vietnamese government took over the Trường Sa administration after the defeat of the French at the end of the First Indochina War. In 1958, the PRC issued a declaration defining its territorial waters, which encompassed the Spratly Islands. North Vietnam's prime minister, Pham Van Dong, sent a formal note to Zhou Enlai, stating that the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) respected the Chinese decision regarding the 12 nmi (22 km; 14 mi) limit of territorial waters. While accepting the 12-nmi principal with respect to territorial waters, the letter did not actually address the issue of defining actual territorial boundaries.
In an interview with BBC, Dr. Balazs Szalontai provided the following insight:
"The general context of the Chinese declaration was the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, held in 1956, and the resulting treaties signed in 1958, such as the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone. Understandably, the PRC government, though not being a member of the U.N., also wanted to have a say in how these issues were dealt with. Hence the Chinese declaration of September 1958. In these years, North Vietnam could hardly afford to alienate Communist comrade China. The Soviet Union did not give any substantial support to Vietnamese reunification, and neither South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem nor the United States government showed readiness to give consent to the holding of all-Vietnamese elections as stipulated by the Geneva Agreements. On the contrary, Diem did his best to suppress the Communist movement in the South. This is why Pham Van Dong felt it necessary to take sides with China, whose tough attitude toward the Asian policies of the US offered some hope. And yet he seems to have been cautious enough to make a statement that supported only the principle that China was entitled for 12-mile (19 km) territorial seas along its territory but evaded the issue of defining this territory. While the preceding Chinese statement was very specific, enumerating all the islands (including the Paracels and the Spratlys) for which the PRC laid claim, the DRV statement did not say a word about the concrete territories to which this rule was applicable. Still, it is true that in this bilateral territorial dispute between Chinese and Vietnamese interests, the DRV standpoint, more in a diplomatic than a legal sense, was incomparably closer to that of China than to that of South Vietnam".[unreliable source?]
On May 23, 2011, the President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, warned visiting Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea. Aquino said he told Liang in their meeting that this could happen if there were more encounters in the disputed and potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands.
In May 2011, Chinese patrol boats attacked two Vietnamese oil exploration ships near the Spratly Islands. Also in May 2011, Chinese naval vessels opened fire on Vietnamese fishing vessels operating off East London Reef (Da Dong). The three Chinese military vessels were numbered 989, 27 and 28, and they showed up with a small group of Chinese fishing vessels. Another Vietnamese fishing vessel was fired on near Fiery Cross Reef (Chu Thap). The Chief Commander of Border Guards in Phu Yen Province, Vietnam reported that a total of four Vietnamese vessels were fired upon by Chinese naval vessels.[verification needed] These incidents involving Chinese forces sparked mass protests in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and in various Vietnamese communities in the West (namely in the U.S. state of California and in Paris) over attacks on Vietnamese citizens and the intrusion into what Vietnam claimed was part of its territory.
On May 18, 2011, China Mobile announced that its mobile phone coverage has expanded to the Spratly Islands. The extended coverage would 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 service network deployment over the islands took nearly one year.
- List of islands in the South China Sea
- Johnson South Reef Skirmish
- South China Sea Islands
- Paracel Islands
- Kingdom of Humanity
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- Zheng He
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- Chinese irredentism
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- Historical Evidence To Support China's Sovereignty over Nansha Islands
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- Miscellaneous Records of the South Sea Defensive Command 《海南卫指挥佥事柴公墓志》
- Qing dynasty provincial map from tianxia world map 《清直省分图》之《天下总舆图》
- Qing dynasty circuit and province map from Tianxia world map 《皇清各直省分图》之《天下总舆图》
- Great Qing of ten thousand years tianxia map 《大清万年一统天下全图》
- Great Qing of ten thousand years general map of all territory 《大清万年一统地量全图》
- Great Qing tianxia overview map 《大清一统天下全图》
- Alleged Early Map of the Spratly Islands near the Vietnamese Coast
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Spratly Islands.|
- Wikimedia Atlas of the Spratly Islands
- Spratly Islands travel guide from Wikivoyage
- Mariner's page of the Spratly Islands
- Taiwanese List with ~170 entries
- List of atolls with areas
- Satellite images of all islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands. at the Wayback Machine (archived December 23, 2010)
- Flags of the World (FOTW) entry with various micronations on the Spratly Islands.
- Map showing the claims
- A tabular summary about the Spratly and Paracel Islands
- Another overview table of the Spratly Islands
- CIA World Factbook for Spratly Islands
- PDF (1.70 MiB), from Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- PDF (150 KiB)
- Third Party Summary of the Dispute
- Google Map of Spratly Islands
- Ji Guoxing (October 1995), Maritime Jurisdiction in the Three China Seas: Options For Equitable Settlement (PDF), Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
- A collection of documents on Spratly and Paracel Islands by Nguyen Thai Hoc Foundation