South-East Asian Race for the Spratly-Islands
of small islets, atolls, coral
are scattered far in the wide area of the South-Chinese Sea
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.
"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
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
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”
- 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
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.
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.
Republic of China attempts to prove by archaeological findings,
that Chinese fishermen visited the islands and their
(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
1883 from the Spratly-Islands.
in the historical argumentation of Red China
- for Taiwan also - are the lack
for a longer-term settlement and administration of the islands
as well as passivity is in the first half of the 20th century.
the Vietnamese bolster their
in part of historical and refer to early governmentally
constructed temples built
and plantations in
time of the royal empire of
Finally France – as former
colonial power of Vietnam – claimed in the thirtieths
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.
should still mention, that Japan was strongly militarily
represented in the Spratly area
on the island Itu
Aba a submarine
basis to control the shipping traffic. In 1951 Japan refused on future sovereignty
- There were also private persons who announced territorial claims via settlement trials to
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.
mentioned above that the islands in itself are economically
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.
the center of interest is not the masses of fish. Aside from Taiwan most adjoining countries maintain only a coastal
shipping for fishing
only little to the gross national product. The sea area
of the islands becomes attractive by their
position and presumed oil and natural gas reserves.
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
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
of the world (approx. 300 big
30 % of the world trade
48 % of the Japanese commerce as well as a high part of the
merchandise of and to South
70 % of the Japanese crude
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
current economic growth rates the demand
Southeast-Asian countries will increase strongly. An exceptional
interest found exploration
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
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:
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.
claims and appropriations after the 2nd world war
after the 2nd World War for islands and/or sea areas
in the Southeast-Asian Sea. The countries are:
People's Republic of China
procedure of the competitors ( exception: Brunei) is,
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
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
Some of the claimed areas have a distance from more than 1000 km
from the southern
of China and collide in the south for example with Indonesian
claims of sovereignty. Chinese claims are laying outside
of an 200-mile
of an "Excluding Economic
Zone" (EEZ) as
created by the International Sea Convention. While the ASEAN-states
occupying uninhabited islands, People's Republic of China
proceeded also in a militant-aggressive manner.
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
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
into an artificial supply and observation island with
After these events the diplomatic relations between both states
are intermitted for a decade. From 1992 – 1994 the Red-Chinese
government gives exploration
that are claimed by Vietnam ( Gulf of Tonkin / Spratly- Area - 600 miles south of the Chinese island Hainan)
and Indonesia (Natuna
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.
which is - at apparently good negotiation
has been paraphrased with the following terms: "talk and take",
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
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
relatively peaceful in the
. There are only reports on skirmishes in 1995 with a Vietnamese
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
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
the military attack on Vietnamese boats
in 1988 at
In 1976 Vietnam signed the ASEAN "Code
, which recommends peaceful solutions and became a member of
ASEAN community in 1995. Vietnamese
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.
does not claim any island, only within
200-Mile Economy Zone
which is also a claim of
the People's Republic of China.
refers with regard to its claims
continental shelf argument
(Shelf of Sabah and Sawarak) and
the argument of the
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
could give a military support.
The speaker of Philippine government under
formulated the following basic
"Already in early history the South-Chinese Sea has been a
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
– precisely : they require approx. 60 islets (Kalayaan group)
that are situated in a triangle west of
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
in Manila, to solve the
only by peaceful agreements. Status quo shouldn’t be touched.
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
is approx. 135 miles
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
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
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
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
Chinese fishing boats are expelled out of this zone.
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
that the reef has been converted to an artificial island. According to western analyzers it
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
A military intervention of the Philippines - the
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
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
and common development projects if three
conditions would be fulfilled: (a) finishing
of the buildings, (b) "normal" relationships between both states
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
And how is the reaction of the United States? After all there
exists a mutual
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
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
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
China has a quantitative
maritime preponderance position compared with other Asian
countries. The following figures are from the middle of the
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
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
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