South-East Asian Race for the Spratly-Islands


Hundreds of small islets, atolls, coral reefs, sandbanks and rocks are scattered far in the wide area of the South-Chinese Sea (648.000 square miles). Up to the middle of the 20th century  these elevations of ground  have only been important for the navigation of ships, because there are numberless dangers of getting shipwrecked. The number of islets varies in literature - according to the definition of island- between 180 and 600. It depends also on  the level of tide.  

The "islands" are very small. There are only 12 main islands having an extension of more than 0.5 km 2. Ita Aba the largest island with sweet water has only an area of 1200 m x 400 m. The majority of the approximately 400 investigations are under water in times of tide. Chances of getting sovereignty rights for them according the International Sea Convention are limited. Due to their small size - the combined total area  is estimated to 3 - 5 square kilometers - the "islands" look like small points in a diagram. The islands form  four clusters:  

the Prata-Islands,     

the Macclesfield Bank,

in the north the Paracel-Islands controversial between Vietnam and the People's Republic of China

and in the south in a more narrow sense the Spratly Islands, which are here in the center of interest.

The  flat islands - a maximum of four meters high - have only an aesthetic-ecological relevancy. A self-sustaining life on the islands seems to be impossible. This criterion is mostly not fulfilled with regard to the legal examination of “Territorial Sea “ (12 miles) and /or "Economical Exclusive Zone”  ("EEZ" - 200 km). The islands are described as not arable and have not been inhabited continuously before the World War II. The temperatures are above 35 ° degrees centigrade. From July to November typhoon tempests lash the  flat islands  and modify then their sizes and figures. Occasionally  shrubs and beach grasses are growing. The ground can be covered with the guano of sea birds which find a draft stop here. The green sea turtle and hawksbill turtle lay  their eggs in the sand.  

Due to the political-military tensions and the dangers the Spratly Islands - an important spawn field for fishes -are still valid as ecological  intact and not over fished. Nevertheless there are reports about the use of acids and explosives from fishermen of Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1998. By the way, the "islands" are "still a mystery" for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with still large of extent unknown ecology. By the way a representative of the WWF gives the opinion, that the Spratly Islands belongs to the turtles and sea birds and not to any state of governments. May be that this opinion is in a political sense a little bit naive.

Historical Positions  

We have to mention shortly  the history of the islands because the People's Republic of China, Taiwan and Vietnam establish their positional property claims to the islands less by legal arguments than historically.

People's Republic of China attempts to prove by archaeological findings, that Chinese fishermen visited the islands and their sea area since Han-Dynasties (from 200 before Ch.)  and refers to sea maps in particular from the 12th to 17 century. Also a Chinese ambassador enrolled in London 1876 territorial property-claims to the to the north sited Paracel-Islands and Chinese expelled a German exploration team 1883 from the Spratly-Islands. Weak points in the historical argumentation of Red China  - for Taiwan also - are the lack of  evidence for a longer-term settlement and administration of the islands as well as passivity is in the first half of the 20th century.  

Also the Vietnamese bolster their sovereignty claims in part of historical and refer to early governmentally supported ship wreck enquiries, constructed temples  built and plantations  in  time of the royal empire of Anamite. Finally France – as former  colonial power of Vietnam – claimed in the thirtieths  seven Spratly islands and led a slack supervision. According to experts it is in dispute whether the Chinese or Vietnamese have the better historical arguments. By the way, archaeological findings can be used only as supplementary argument for sovereignty, because historical Chinese artifacts can be found at many places of the world without any connection to territorial property claims.  

We should still mention, that Japan was strongly militarily represented in the Spratly area  from 1939-1949. They maintained on the island Itu Aba a submarine  basis to control the shipping traffic. In 1951 Japan refused on future sovereignty claims. - There were also private persons who announced territorial claims  via settlement trials to some Spratly-islands in the 19th and 20th century. History knows a "Kingdom of Humanity" or a "Principality of Freedomland" (Kalayaan Islands), that later was offered as a protectorate to the Philippines by a rich Philippine lawyer in 1956.

Geopolitical importance  

We mentioned above that the islands in itself are economically uninteresting.  Until the end of 2nd world war they have been  in political sense a terra incognita.  In the fifties they loose their nearly  worthless status and become - due to modified evaluation of the surrounding sea area -   a bone of contention for the diplomacy and also military of the adjoining countries.  

In the center of interest is not the masses of fish. Aside from Taiwan most adjoining countries  maintain only a coastal shipping for fishing , which adds only little to the gross national product. The sea area of the islands becomes attractive by their geostrategic position and presumed oil and natural gas reserves.  

The sea area  of the Spratly islands takes in the shipping traffic, that passes the Streets of Malacca,  Sunda and Lambok on and represents a very important interface between the Indian Sea and The Pacific Ocean. It is a maritime highway for the raw material and product traffic from the Asia, the Near East, Europe and Africa. The area of Spratlys is passed by:  

more than a quarter of the entire shipping traffic of the world (approx. 300  big ships per day)

30 % of the world trade

48 % of the Japanese commerce as well as a high part of the merchandise of and to South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia

70 % of the Japanese crude oil imports  

The People's Republic of China, which claims wide parts of the South-Chinese Sea (a designation by mistake), passed in 1992 a law that demands a permission from every ship that passes the zone. The Chinese Foreign Secretary of State formulated: If China is not applying this law, “it does not mean that it gives up his right”. Its evident, that possible passing allowances given or not given by Peking are hurting vital  interests especially of Japan and  Taiwan.  

Given current economic growth rates the demand for energy of the Southeast-Asian countries will increase strongly. An exceptional interest found exploration reports stating that the area contains considerable oil and gas reserves. Explorations in the deeper sea are expensive and though almost three billion of US $ for explorations were spent to middle of the eighties years, the estimates about the available reserves differ strongly from each other another.  They seem to be consistent in the point that approx. 70 % of the hydraulic carbonate reserves consist of gas. The most optimistic forecasting is Chinese origin's and comes  to the result, that reserves in the Spratly Islands are  broader than such of Kuwait:  



oil reserves

Bill. Barrels


oil reserves

Bill. Barrels


gas reserves

"Quintillion Cubic Feet"


gas reserves

"Quintillion Cubic Feet"

Chinese Estimate

South China Sea

Paracel-/Spratly Islands









Western Estimate

South China  Sea













After a thumb rule only about ten percent - particularly in the offshore area - can produced  economically. In 1997 the oil production in the South-Chinese Sea was approx. 1,4 million barrels - at approximately 47 % have been produced in Malaysia,  11 % in Brunei and in the Philippines only 0,1 %. Gas Production in the South-Chinese Sea amounted in 1997 to approx. 2,3 billion Cubic Feet - Malaysia produced approx. 56 %, Thailand approx. 21 % and the Philippines under one percent. With look to the small amounts in particular in the Spratly Islands a leading consultant of an American exploration company says that the deposits are hardly worth  the risk of war.

Territorial claims and appropriations after the 2nd world war  

Seven adjoining countries compete after the 2nd World War for islands and/or sea areas in the Southeast-Asian Sea. The countries are:   

People's Republic of China Taiwan Vietnam Philippines Brunei Malaysia  

Common procedure of the competitors ( exception: Brunei) is, that they try to establish by  peaceful or unmerciful occupation of islands legal titles on sea areas  which could enlarge their domestic waters. A commentator paraphrased this procedure with "playing king of the hill".

The People's Republic of China

requires all islands and round about 80 % of the South China Sea area. Claims are based on historical arguments. The claims were proclaimed already in 1947 and there was a confirmation in 1992. The claimed area is not  clearly defined cleanly, the Chinese maps show nine U-shaped, broken lines as boundary markers. Some of the claimed areas have a distance from more than 1000 km from the southern coast of China and collide in the south for example with Indonesian  claims of sovereignty. Chinese claims are laying outside of an 200-mile area of an "Excluding Economic Zone" (EEZ) as created by the International Sea Convention. While the ASEAN-states were occupying uninhabited islands, People's Republic of China proceeded also in a militant-aggressive manner.  

In the seventies the conflict with Vietnam is dominant. Arguing Chinese fishermen would have been disturbed in fishing, Chinese naval forces occupied in 1974–1976 the Paracel Islands (Truong Sa / 6 atolls) and expelled Vietnamese garrisons. In 1988 there was another clash of both marines  at  Johnson Reef which is situated in the area of the Spratly-Islands. The Chinese sent several Vietnamese boats to the bottom, more than 70 Vietnamese sailors have been killed  and China got  possession of further six small islands and reefs. Later the long stretched Fiery-Cross-Reef gets |transformed into an artificial supply and observation island with  an helicopter place, 300-meter-pier and satellite communication. After these events the diplomatic relations between both states are intermitted for a decade. From 1992 – 1994 the Red-Chinese government gives exploration concessions to US companies, that are claimed by Vietnam ( Gulf of Tonkin / Spratly- Area - 600 miles south of the Chinese island Hainan) and Indonesia (Natuna Island).  

In 1995 the Philippine navy discovers that the Chinese are building houses at Mischief-Reef, which is situated near Palawan. We refer to this action below.  It results in smaller clashes in the following time in particular between the Philippine navy and Chinese fishing boats. In November 1998 a further expansion of the Mischief-Reef through the Chinese is discovered and the Chinese-Philippine conflict escalates. The crisis around the occupation of the Mischief-Reefs smolders on smaller flame until today. The international attention has again returned to the continuous and intensifying conflict between Red China and Taiwan.

China occupies now aside from the Paracel-Islands ten islands in the Spratly-Area. They show permanent accommodations. Western observers are estimating, that approximately 1000 soldiers are on the islands. The Chinese side denies this and declares, only civilians would work there observing the weather and managing communication installations.  

China's maritime politics, which is - at apparently good negotiation will - primarily power politics, has been paraphrased with the following terms: "talk and take", "salami-tactics" or “creeping invasion”. We still should add, that People's Republic of China has signed relatively late (in 1996) the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This law does not regulate all possible conflicts especially in case of overlapping claims or definition of an island. The interpretation by China is very questionable and China refuses any jurisdiction on this subject by the International Court in Den Haag. The country is not a member of  ASEAN but participated at relevant conferences. China wants to solve the conflicts by bilateral not multilateral negotiations.   


The Republic of China, in own view the "true China", has similar claims as the government in Peking. History delivers also the basis  of arguments. Since 1946 Taiwan occupies  Itu Aba, the largest Spratly island. Taiwan retains relatively peaceful in the Spratly-Conflict . There are only reports on skirmishes in 1995 with a Vietnamese supply ship respectively a Red-Chinese patrol boat.  


Vietnam claims the all Spratly islands. Some of them are more than 400 km away from its coastal line. The country refers to historical arguments and the continental shelf argument. The continental shelf is defined as an underwater portion of a country’s coastal land mass – including the seabed as well as the subsoil of shore. Mostly a shelf goes into the depth at about 200 m. International Sea Law  allows the exploration of the shelf.  

Due to the separation of the country, Vietnam War and later the political isolation  Vietnam could not realize its objectives in the Spratly region. In the eightieth and ninetieth years the country opposed strongly Chinas expansion in the Red China Sea. Background was the Chinese occupation of the Paracel Islands in 1976 and the military attack on Vietnamese boats  in 1988  at Johnson Reef.

In 1976 Vietnam signed the ASEAN "Code of Conduct" , which recommends peaceful solutions and became a member of ASEAN community in 1995. Vietnamese territorial claims are overlapping with those of Red China. After failed negotiations in 1999 both sides could  2000 clarify the fishing rights in the gulf of Tonkin. The new sea boundaries are not yet published. Vietnam occupies currently approx. twenty scattered small islands and rocks in the Spratly area.  


Brunei does not claim any island, only within  its 200-Mile Economy Zone Loisa-Reef, which is also a claim of  the People's Republic of China.  


Malaysia refers with regard to its claims to the continental shelf argument (Shelf of Sabah and Sawarak) and the argument of  the 200-miles zone. It claims 12 south sited Spratly islands. Three of them are inhabited. An atoll has been enlarged by removing earth from the mainland and a hotel was established. The claims are  well based on the International Sea Convention.  A strong navy with 10  missile frigates could give a military support.  


The speaker of Philippine government under  ex-president Estrada Fernando Barcan  formulated the following basic judgment: "Already in early history the South-Chinese Sea has been a common heritage of mankind and a source of livelihood to peoples of coastal states .. Filipino fishermen have fished in the Spratly´s waters since time immemorial.”  

The Philippines raises a territorial partial claim to the Spratly islands – precisely : they require approx. 60 islets (Kalayaan group) that are situated in a triangle west of Palawan. The claim is based on  "discoveries" (see above Thomas Cloma´s " Freedomland") as well as onto rights that result from the 200-mile  Exclusive Economy Zone (Palawan proximity). Philippine military is stationed on seven islands.  

In 1975 there was a first official claim to the islets. This claim was confirmed  again by president Marcos in 1978. Negotiations in the same year with Vietnam on the issue of sea boundaries did not lead to any agreement. 1992 all adjoining countries including Peking  agreed  in Manila, to solve the  conflicts only by peaceful agreements. Status quo shouldn’t be touched. Nevertheless the conflict between Peking and Manila begins to escalate starting 1995. We should remember that the Americans in 1992 - following a nationalistic feeling of the Filipinos - withdraw their military from the Philippines.    

During monsoon time, in which the Philippine navy does not patrol the area, Chinese naval forces occupy the Mischief-Reef, which is sited within the 200-mile-zone of Palawan. The Mischief-Reef is approx. 135 miles  far from Palawan, however, has a distance of more than 1000 miles from the Chinese mainland. It has its name of a German sailor in the 18th century. It shows a diameter of approx. four miles, includes a lagoon with three entries and is mostly flooded in time of tide. Perhaps Chinese government felt a little bit provocated before, because there was the plan of a common exploration and evolution of the sea area.  But the Philippine government decided later for an own placing of an oil exploration concession in the area.   

The Philippine government is confronted with a fait accompli and president Ramos is protesting. In the view of Philippine government the building of the protection huts is an unambiguous violation  of common agreements and international right. Peking on the other hand tries to appease. Only  wooden shelters for Chinese fishermen would be built. But now also the other ASEAN – countries  see the danger of a military confrontation in the South-Chinese Sea. The Chinese foreign policy meets increasing skepticism. The  speaker of president Jerry Barcia commented a  possible destruction of the Chinese accommodations with the following words: "We can't destroy the inhabited structures because we don't want war on the Spratly´s”. The Philippine Air Force – in a show of resistance - is only destroying Chinese markers in its EEZ-zone and Chinese fishing boats are expelled out of this zone.   

The Mischief conflict flares up again in November 1998, when the Philippine air force detects new concrete buildings  with two and three floors on the Reef.  An over fly  of the island is not possible, because there have been warning-shots from Chinese side. The photographs taken from a  far distance show that the reef has been converted to an artificial island. According to western analyzers it has  fortified  buildings,  an air defense system,  a 300-meter pier capable of handling 4,000-ton ships, a heli pad as well as an ultramodern observation station that can receive and transmit through satellites. For the Philippine government this procedure of Chinese side  is the "biggest security challenge ever faced by the Philippines since Second World War".  

A military intervention of the Philippines - the Mischief Reef is protected through the Chinese navy – is not possible because of unambiguous inferiority. Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado formulated in such time: The Philippines have " an air force that can't fly and a navy that can't go out to sea Our country is weak, is extremely vulnerable to externally threats and needs this alliance ( with the United States) in order to protect our national interest. The Chinese side keeps on arguing only of a civilian shelter for fishermen. The Chinese sovereignty of the island would be "indisputable". The attitudes toward the Philippines remains ambiguous. In June 99 Peking is proclaiming a one-sided, fishing prohibition regulation in the area. On the other hand – in a kind of  malicious generosity of a wolf – China offers an aperture of the Mischief-Reef and common development projects if three  conditions would be fulfilled: (a) finishing of the buildings, (b) "normal" relationships between both states and (c) a fishing agreement with the Philippines.  

The Philippine government finds support by the other ASEAN countries. But a powerful counter position to Peking can hardly be built up in this "beautiful weather alliance". And how is the reaction of the United States? After all there exists a mutual defense alliance since 1951. The United States are recommending restraint and are indicating that the Spratly dispute is unlikely to invoke the pact because it is only  referring  to the area of the Philippines from 1951. In this time the Philippines had not made any sovereignty right onto the Spratly islands.  

General importance of the dispute  

Some observers come now to the result, that the Spratly crisis of 1999 has lost its dramatics. The classical tensions between Peking and Taiwan should get more international attention.  

Other analysts keep on considering that the area is Asia's most dangerous tinder box especially if   the freedom of the Sea routes should be strangulated. In such a case the United States feel themselves obliged to a military intervention, then possible belligerent actions  between China and the United States could get  global implications.  

China holds a key position in this conflict. The question is, will China continue the creeping annexation of the South-Chinese Sea and will it keep on the denial of an international conflict regulation, for example by International Court of Justice? Some experts don´t see such a  development in the next decade. Main objects of China’s short- and medium term policy would be a further stabilization of the national economy and a better international integration as superpower.

China has a quantitative maritime preponderance position compared with other Asian countries. The following figures are from the middle of the nineties:  





Submarine boats




Destroyer / frigates




Patrol- and coastal airplanes




Combat Aircraft




Armed forces




But China has not  such maritime forces, which would be necessary  in case of a military intervention of the United States. It is still buying more modern  submarine boats from the Soviet Union. But the building up of naval forces continues with big steps and there are some augurs arguing that it is  only a question of time, when the South-Chinese Sea plus islands falls into the hands  of  Chinese like a ripe fruit.

Analysts are saying the Philippine navy is antiquated and is supposed to be the weakest among the ASEAN-members.  

Further developments also depend from the position of the American government. Up to now the American government holds out from the conflict because it fears the further regional and global effects in case of intervention. Balancing of politics with regard to the two Chinas is already difficult enough. America favors all peaceful steps according to international law  and undertaken by the conflict partners itself.  The foreign office knows also that  Peking would refuse an American role as mediator. Up to now there is only an assertion, that the United States would guarantee the free navigation, furthermore the USA are interested strongly participated in the exploration business with China and further expansion of the economical relationships. On the other hand there are  obligations resulting from the SEATO military pact.  

Are there still chances for a peaceful conflict solution ?  

A senior adviser with name Valencia  offers an interesting but schematic proposal for solution. His plan needs however an instant  compromise of Red China and Taiwan. He proposes to demilitarize the Spratly area and to transmit the administration and promotion of the area to a  multinational Spratly Development Authority ( SDA). China and Taiwan should receive a part of 51 % of the SDA, if they give up their historical claiming.  

There are already bilateral agreements with regard to common development projects, e.g. between the Philippines and Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia and between Malaysia and Vietnam.

Also the ASEAN-countries will get in better process of conflict embankment and solution. The ASEAN-conference however  is regarded  as "a toothless tiger" and previous conferences conked out mostly at letters of intent. Peking opposes also multinational proposals for solution.  

May be that the government of China will find to the opinion that peaceful conflict regulations are more profitable than further military expansion.  

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2002