Spratly Islands

Spratly Islands
Spratly Islands
Disputed islands
Spratly Islands-CIA WFB Map.png
Spratly Islands
Location South China Sea
Coordinates 10°N 114°E / 10°N 114°E / 10; 114Coordinates: 10°N 114°E / 10°N 114°E / 10; 114
Total islands over 750
Major islands Itu Aba Island
Namyit Island
Northeast Cay
Sin Cowe Island
Southwest Cay
Spratly Island
Swallow Reef
Thitu 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)
Administered by
Claimed by
EEZ Brunei zone
State Sabah
Municipality Kalayaan
 People's Republic of China
County Administration Office for Xisha Islands, Zhongsha Islands and Nansha Islands
 Republic of China (Taiwan)
Municipality Kaohsiung
Province Khanh Hoa
Population no indigenous population
Ethnic groups various
Spratly Islands
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 南沙群島
Simplified Chinese 南沙群岛
Filipino name
Tagalog Kapuluan ng Kalayaan
Malay name
Malay Kepulauan Spratly
Vietnamese name
Quốc ngữ Quần Đảo Trường Sa
Hán tự 群島長沙

The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs,[1] islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia (Sabah), about one third of the way from there to southern Vietnam. They comprise less than four square kilometers of land area spread over more than 425,000 square kilometers of sea. The Spratlys are one of three 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. There are no native islanders but there are rich fishing grounds and initial surveys indicate the islands may contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas.

About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from Vietnam, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei has also claimed an EEZ in the southeastern part of the Spratlys encompassing just one area of small islands above mean high water (on Louisa Reef.)


Geographic and economic overview

NASA picture of a cay in the Spratly group.
(sea surface): 410,000 km² of the central South China Sea
  • Coastline: 926 km
  • Political divisions: (in alphabetic order of claimants)
    • Brunei: Part of Brunei's Exclusive Economic Zone;[2]
    • People's Republic of China: Part of 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 islands are most likely volcanic in origin.[3] The islands themselves contain almost no significant arable land and have no indigenous inhabitants, although twenty of the islands, including Itu Aba, 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. The proximity to nearby oil- and gas-producing sedimentary basins suggests the potential for oil and gas deposits, but the region is largely unexplored, and there are no reliable estimates of potential reserves. Commercial exploitation of hydrocarbons has yet to be developed. The Spratly Islands have at least three fishing ports, several docks and harbors, at least three heliports, at least four territorial rigging style outposts (especially due west of Namyit Island),[4] and six to eight airstrips.These islands are strategically located near several primary shipping lanes.


Coral reefs

Coral reefs are the predominant structure of these islands; the Spratly group contains over 600 coral reefs in total.[1]


Little vegetation grows on these islands, which are subject to intense monsoons.[1] Larger islands are capable of supporting tropical forest, scrub forest, coastal scrub and grasses.[1] It is difficult to determine which species have been introduced or cultivated by humans.[1] Itu Aba Island was reportedly covered with shrubs, coconut, and mangroves in 1938; pineapple was also cultivated here when it was profitable.[1] Other accounts mention papaya, banana, palm, and even white peach trees growing on one island.[1] A few islands which have been developed as small tourist resorts have had soil and trees brought in and planted where there were none.[1]


The islands that do have vegetation provide important habitats for many seabirds and sea turtles.[1]

Both the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas, endangered) and the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata, critically endangered) formerly occurred in numbers sufficient to support commercial exploitation.[1] 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.[1]

Seabirds use the islands for resting, breeding, and wintering sites.[1] 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).[1] 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.[1]

Unfortunately, this ecoregion is still largely a mystery.[1] Scientists have focused their research on the marine environment, while the ecology of the terrestrial environment remains relatively unknown.[1]

Ecological hazards

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.[1] Disruption of nesting areas by human activity or by introduced animals, such as dogs, has reduced the number of turtles nesting on the islands.[1] Sea turtles are also slaughtered for food on a significant scale.[1] The sea turtle is a symbol of longevity in Chinese customs and at times the military personnel are given orders to protect the turtles.[1]

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.[1] In addition, during a recent 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.[1]

Some interest has been taken in regard to conservation of these island ecosystems.[1] J.W. McManus has explored the possibilities of designating portions of the Spratly Islands as a marine park.[1] One region of the Spratly Archipelago, called Truong Sa, was proposed by Vietnam’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (MOSTE) as a future protected area.[1] The 160 km2 site is currently managed by the Khanh Hoa Provincial People’s Committee of Vietnam.[1]

Military groups in the Spratlys have engaged in environmentally damaging activities such as shooting turtles and seabirds, raiding nests, and fishing with explosives.[1] 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.[1] Coral habitats are threatened by pollution, over-exploitation of fish and invertebrates, and the use of explosives and poisons as fishing techniques.[1]


Early cartography

Geographic map of Spratlys. Click for more detailed image. For a satellite images of the islands, tagged by occupying country, see here.

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.[5]

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),[6] 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. [7][8] They are also referenced in the 13th century,[9] followed by the Ming Dynasty.[10] When the Ming Dynasty collapsed, the Qing Dynasty continued to include the territory in maps compiled in 1724,[11] 1755,[12] 1767,[13] 1810,[14] and 1817.[15] 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 "Wanli Changsha".[16]

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.[17] In Phủ Biên Tạp Lục (Frontier Chronicles) by the scholar Le Quy Don, Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa were defined as belonging to 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.[17]

Despite the fact that China and Vietnam both made a claim to these territories simultaneously, at the time, neither side was aware that their neighbor had already charted and made claims to the same stretch of islands.[17]

The islands were sporadically visited throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by mariners from different European powers (including Richard Spratly, after whom the island group derives its most recognizable English name).[18] However, these nations showed little interest in the islands. In 1883, German boats surveyed the Spratly and Paracel Islands but withdrew the survey eventually after receiving protests from the Nguyen Dynasty. Many European maps before the 20th century do not even make mention of this region.[19]

Military conflict and diplomatic dialogues

In 1933, France asserted its claims from 1887[20] to the Spratly and Paracel Islands on behalf of its then-colony Vietnam.[21] It occupied a number of the Spratly Islands, including Itu Aba, built weather stations on two, and administered them as part of French Indochina. This occupation was protested by the Republic of China government because France admitted finding Chinese fishermen there when French warships visited the nine islands.[22] 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 used the islands as a submarine base for the occupation of Southeast Asia. During the occupation, these islands were called Shinnan Shoto (新南諸島), literally the New Southern Islands, and put under the governance of Taiwan together with the Paracel Islands (西沙群岛). In 1945, The Republic of China sent its Naval ships to take control of the islands after the surrender of Japan. It had chosen the largest and perhaps the only inhabitable island, Itu Aba Island, as its base, and renamed the island under the name of the naval vessel as Taiping. The KMT force of Republic Of China briefly abandoned the islands after its defeat in China's civil war in 1949, but re-established the base in 1956. Today, Itu Aba Island is still administrated by the Republic of China.

Following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, China re-claimed the entirety of the Spratly Islands (including Itu Aba), accepting the Japanese surrender on the islands based on the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations. The ROC government withdrew from most of the Spratly and Paracel Islands after they retreated to Taiwan from the opposing Communist Party of China, which founded the People's Republic of China in 1949.[21] ROC quietly withdrew troops from Itu Aba in 1950, but reinstated them in 1956 in response to Tomas Cloma's sudden claim to the island as part of Freedomland.[23]

Japan renounced all claims to the islands in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, together with the Paracels, Pratas & other islands captured from China, upon which China reasserted its claim to the islands.

It was unclear whether France continued its claim to the islands after WWII, since none of the islands other than Itu Aba is 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 People's Republic of China 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 respects the decision by China regarding the 12 nautical mile limit of territorial waters.[24] Regarding this letter, there have been many arguments on its true meaning and the reason why Phạm Văn Đồng decided to send it to Zhou Enlai. One important fact is that the letter while accepting the 12 nautical mile principal for the limit of territorial waters of China, has never mentioned a word about how the territorial boundary was defined and thus leaving the dispute on South China Sea islands as its status quo for later settlement. In an interview with BBC, Dr. Balazs Szalontai provided an insight into this issue: "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 comrad China. The Soviet Union did not give any substantial support to Vietnamese reunification, and neither South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem nor the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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".[25] Some international scholars argued that, Pham Van Dong who represented North Vietnam at that time has no legal right to comment on a territorial part which belonged to the South Vietnam represented by Ngo Dinh Diem. Therefore, the letter has no legal value and is considered as a diplomatic document to show the support of the government of North Vietnam to the PRC at that time.[verification needed] In 2004, Vietnam issued a white paper saying, in part,

Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and legal basis to assert its indisputable sovereignty over the territorial waters and islands of Vietnam in the East Sea, among them the Paracels and Spratlys. Nevertheless, for the common security interests of the parties concerned, Vietnam is ready to enter into peaceful negotiations to settle the problem, first and foremost by reaching an agreement on the "Code of Conduct" pending the final solution.[26]

On May 23, 2011, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned the Chinese defense minister of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea. Aquino said he told visiting Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in their meeting that such an arms race could result if there were more encounters in the disputed and potentially oil-rich Spratly islands.[27]

In May 2011, Chinese naval vessels opened fire on Vietnamese fishing vessels operating off East London Reef (Da Dong Island). Three military vessels were numbered 989, 27 and 28. They showed up with a small group of Chinese fishing vessels. Another Vietnamese fishing vessel was fired on near Cross (Chu Thap) Island. The Chief Commander of Border Guards in Phu Yen Province, Vietnam reports that a total of four Vietnamese vessels were fired upon by Chinese naval vessels.[verification needed]

In June 2011, the Philippines renamed the South China Sea and the Reed Bank as the West Philippine Sea and the Recto Bank.[28][verification needed]


In 2005, a cellular phone base station was erected by the Philippines' Smart Communications on Pag-asa Island.[29]

On 18 May 2011, China Mobile announced that its mobile phone coverage has 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.[30]


See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac World Wild Life: Terrestrial Ecoregions – South China Sea Islands, World Lildlife Fund.
  2. ^ Borneo Post: When All Else Fails (archived from the original on 2008-02-28) 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, in fact, a "territorial dispute" between Brunei and other claimants over the ownership of one above-water feature (Louisa Reef)
  3. ^ MARA C. HURWITT, U.S. STRATEGY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA: THE SPRATLY ISLANDS DISPUTE (Masters Thesis), Defense Technical Information center.
  4. ^ A Chinese Outpost.
  5. ^ Thurgood, Graham (1999), From Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects: Two Thousand Years of Language Contact and Change, University of Hawaii Press, p. 16, ISBN 9780824821319, http://books.google.com/books?id=MBGYb84A7SAC .
  6. ^ Image: General Map of Distances and Historic Capitals, Wikimedia Commons.
  7. ^ Jianming Shen (1996), "Territorial Aspects of the South China Sea Island Disputes", in Nordquist, Myron H.; Moore, John Norton, Security Flashpoints, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, pp. 165–166, ISBN 9789041110565, http://books.google.com/?id=DKXRRfWtkw8C&pg=PA163&lpg=PA163&dq=%22wang+dayuan%22+spratly#PPA166,M1 , ISBN 90-411-1056-9 ISBN 978-90-411-1056-5.
  8. ^ Historical Evidence To Support China's Sovereignty over Nansha Islands
  9. ^ 《元史》地理志;《元代疆域图叙》
  10. ^ 《海南卫指挥佥事柴公墓志铬》
  11. ^ 《清直省分图》天下总舆图
  12. ^ 皇清各直省分图》之《天下总舆图
  13. ^ 《大清万年一统天下全图》
  14. ^ 《大清万年一统地量全图》
  15. ^ 《大清一统天下全图》
  16. ^ Alleged Early Map of the Spratly Islands near the Vietnamese Coast
  17. ^ a b c King C. Chen, China's War with Vietnam (1979) pp.43-44.
  18. ^ MARITIME BRIEFING, Volume I, Number 6: A Geographical Description of the Spratly Island and an Account of Hydrographic Surveys Amongst Those Islands, 1995 by David Hancox and Victor Prescott. Pages 14–15
  19. ^ Map of Asia 1892, University of Texas
  20. ^ Paracel Islands, worldstatesmen.org
  21. ^ a b Spratly Islands[broken citation], Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008. All Rights Reserved.
  22. ^ Todd C. Kelly, Vietnamese Claims to the Truong Sa Archipelago, Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.3, Fall 1999.
  23. ^ Kivimäki, Timo (2002), War Or Peace in the South China Sea?, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), ISBN 87-91114-01-2
  24. ^ PRC's declaration over the islands in 1958 Xinhua archives
  25. ^ Regarding the 1958 Letter by Pham Van Dong BBC Vietnamese 2018--09-23
  26. ^ Vietnam White Paper asserts Spratly's sovereignty, no foreign bases.]Asia Africa Intelligence Wire. 2004. accessmylibrary. (April 11, 2011). (subscription required)
  27. ^ Philippines warns of arms race in South China Sea | Inquirer Global Nation
  28. ^ Thanh Tien News China and Vietnam Clash Over Tuna Fishing Ground-Shots Fired, June 6, 2011[verification needed]
  29. ^ Kalayaan Palawan
  30. ^ Ian Mansfield, 18th May 2011, China Mobile Expands Coverage to the Spratly Islands, Cellular News

Further reading

External links

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