The recent headlines in the newspapers regarding the long-running Spratly Islands dispute could be very confusing. Geniustwk provides a simple guide to this long-running dispute that has seven Asian nations falling out over more than 750 Islands.
What is the Spratly Islands?
The Spratly Islands is a group of islands in the South China Sea that are spread over more than 425,000 square kilometres. The islands have little economic value in themselves: there is no arable land, no indigenous inhabitants. However it is these islands that are instrumental in establishing the maritime boundaries for the disputing nations.
Why the Dispute?
In general, the dispute over the Spratlys is largely economic and political. The islands are very useful for countries to expand their maritime boundaries — a symbol of national prestige. In a pragmatic sense, the countries would want to reap the economic benefits therein.
Oil was found on the Spratly Islands in 1968, it is one of the largest oil reserves in the world that have not been tapped so far. The fact that oil resources are dwindling in the world means that these oil resources are getting increasingly valuable, thus intensifying tension in the region.
The Spratly Islands also happens to be one of the most productive areas of fishing for the world and one of the most profitable and busiest commercial shipping lanes. Control over the islands would be a strategic masterstroke for any one of the disputing nations.
Who are the Disputees?
There are altogether 7 countries that are claiming interest in the Spratly Islands:
The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan (Republic of China)
China is claiming ALL of the Spratly Islands as its territory, and has increased its military presence in recent years. It currently occupies Taiping Island and has installed a municipality in Nansha
China and Taiwan have based their claims on these islands on the belief that the Nansha Islands have been under their control for more than 2,000 years (Uncannily similar to Israel’s claim on Palestine)
According to Chinese historians, the Spratly Islands had belonged to China ever since the Han Dynasty in 2 AD, and that ancient Chinese maps have consistently shown since then that Nansha Islands belonged to China.
The Philippines is the Chinese nations’ biggest competitor over the islands. It also claims all these islands as part of its territory.
The Philippines bases its claim on the argument that the islands did not belong to anybody in the first place, China has no proof showing that the islands have ever been under its control. These islands should therefore be available for anyone (i.e., the Philippines) to occupy.
The Philippines annexed some of these islands in 1978 and claimed them as Kalayaan. Based on the international maritime laws the Phillipines also claimed that the islands belong within its exclusive economic zones.
Vietnam is also another competitor who disputes China’s historical claim, counter-claiming that the Chinese historical records do not necessarily prove that the islands are China’s.
Vietnam’s claim was that the then-Vietnamese government took over from the French colonial government in exercising sovereignty over these islands. The Vietnamese believe that China or Philippines have not been in control over these islands since WWII, and therefore neither should control the islands now.
Both countries have a considerably weaker claim on the Islands, but they claim part but not all of these islands. Some of these islands are nearest to their continental shelf and, on these grounds, Brunei and Malaysia believe that these islands belong to them.
So Why the Recent Disputes?
China has increased its military presence on and around these islands. The installation of a municipality there was also seen as a aggressive invasion of the islands by the rest of the claimants.
It is these disagreements that led to the ASEAN countries being unable to reach an agreement or a communique at all after they have met on this thorny issue. This was unprecedented in the history of ASEAN.
Will it be solved?
The fact is, that countries will NEVER surrender their claim over these islands. Surrendering these islands would be seen by their respective indigenous peoples as an act of treason by their own government!
Not all countries also want to settle the dispute via the United Nations. China strongly believes that the islands belong to them, hence there is no need to settle it in an international court.
Since it can’t be solved, will there be a War then?
Experts in general believe that despite the increase in military tensions between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, a military conflict is unlikely. Diplomats are still struggling to find a solution to the crisis. Judging from the currently poor economic climate, no country would want to see their recovering economy devastated by a War in any case.