Spratly Islands and its geopolitical dimensions

By Mishal Batool, Haleema Naz, Mahnoor Malik Ameer, Sania Noor

The Spratly Islands dispute can be looked at from a variety of angles. The Spratly Islands are a smattering of more than 100 islets, shoals, reefs and sandbanks midway between Vietnam and the Philippines. The Spratlys links the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. They were named for a 19th Century British whaling captain. Many of the Spratly are little more than rocks which barely peep above the surface of the sea. In terms of national security, these islands are important due to their location in the South China Sea, where many merchant ships pass through to deliver goods, people, and energy products to Asian-Pacific countries. By controlling these islands, the country in question would be able to ensure the safe passage of their goods.

Six nations lay claim to various parts of the Spratly Island archipelago. They are: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Five countries excluding Brunei maintain a continuous military presence in the area. These military forces occupy a number of the islands and reefs, and the claimant governments have stepped up economic and military activity in the region. This situation makes Spratly archipelago especially vulnerable for potential incidents, which can threaten regional and international security.

There are several reasons why the claimants desire the Spratly Islands. Each Nation has laid its claim based on either discovery rights, historical ownership, islands are part of a nation’s continental shelf, or that the islands lie within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The following study tries to provide a comprehensive review of each state’s claim to the Spratly and it would be useful to gain a broad understanding of how each party sees its own claim as well as those claims made by the other states involved.

Geostrategic Importance and the Resource Rich Areas

Knowing about the geostrategic value of the spratly islands holds an insightful position for understanding the interests of major powers. Spratly islands are located at the mildest of a major intersection of international sea and trade lanes. About one quarter of the world’s seaborne trade passes through these sea lanes. This includes vital oil from the Middle East to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The nations that surround the South China Sea rely heavily on trade among themselves and with other nations for their continued economic growth and political stability. The proximity of the Spratly to South China Sea shipping lanes would be an important strategic element if any island claimant would decide to disrupt trade or create a conflict in the area. The region’s economic growth and security depend upon continued freedom of navigation for both merchant and military traffic. Likewise, the world economy is highly dependent on the free flow of goods through the South China Sea.

Aside from their geostrategic value, the area surrounding the Spratly Islands is also rich in natural resources. This is a very clear motivator behind the Spratly Island claimants for their potential interests in the form of oil, gas, fish, and mineral resources. The waters and area around the Spratly Islands are rich in fish stocks and may contain large oil and gas deposits, tin, manganese, copper, cobalt, and nickel though not fully known (due to secrecy imposed by nations doing the exploration). This extension under international law, according to which a country may control exploration, exploitation, and preservation of natural resources, provides additional motivation for the nations involved to strengthen their claims.

This belief that the South China Sea does contain large deposits of resources has intensified the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes, as in reference to the realist perspective that states are “power grabbers”.

China’s interest in the Spratly Islands

According to China’s claim, the islands are undividable from the China because of the tongue of the Dragon concept. This concept is of the nine dash line drawn in the South China Sea by China and this area eats up the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia, Brunei, Taiwan, Philippines and Malaysia.

China argues that they have a historical claim to the South China Sea. They said that Chinese fishermen had been going to the South China Sea since the 13th century. China named the islands and China discovered the islands in South China Sea and in so many ways nothing has changed. After World War II Japan lost all the control of their neighboring seawater, who was once influencing the complete region. China didn’t waste any time and utilized the minute to lay their hold on the South China Sea by sketching a vague line on the map that encompass 80% to 90% of the South China Sea, later known as 9 DASH LINE. China adhered to its own lines rejecting the elucidated borderline and neglecting the claims by other countries, even when the UN established a two hundred mile EEZ in 1973.

The Spratlys are the heart of South China Sea both naturally and emblematically. In order to protect the claimed area, some nations have built small scale buildings and ports on their claimed islands and even some of them had stuck a few people in there, but as told earlier China believes the whole South China Sea is theirs and also the spratly islands belong to them therefore, China has started building the artificial islands there. Not just building the islands but also installing the military bases on these new artificially based islands, this took the conflict to an entire new level also showing that China is possibly willing to defend its claims with power.

China is building man made islands because they are building naval bases on these islands, this is because the more islands they have the more ships they can support and by doing this they are slowly taking control of the surrounding territory. The Chinese are very careful using the cabbage strategy in the spratly islands to control the contested islands. They are doing it in small steps because they want to avoid a bigger conflict. But with the passage of time issues are getting intensified. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam are now actively arresting fishermen in the waters that they claim and China could go a step further. China also threatened to declare an Air Identification Zone above the South China Sea so that any aircrafts flying through the sea would need Chinese permission, in 2015.

Publicly China claims they aren’t military bases but their actions say otherwise and that is heightening tensions in the region. Steve Bannon former (White House chief strategist) and President Trump’s closest advisor were almost certain that they can go for a war in the sea with China but still the disputes remain in the diplomatic and legitimate rooms that sometimes shatter and occasionally break into slight skirmish.

This is about when the United States took notice, US has no territorial claim in the South China Sea, but it is the world’s super power and US as being the super power of the world uses its enormous navy to defend international waters in the South China Sea . But China sees the US presence in the area as an intrusion into their backyard.  China sent out their own destroyer and a petrol both as a warning, when a US destroyer ship sailed just 12 miles off the shore of Subi Reef, one China’s man-made island in the sea. China is building these artificial islands in order to increase the amount of control in the nearby waters. The strategy they are using is considered as The Cabbage Strategy. In this strategy they encircle the disputed island with as many ships as viable.

China also sent various vessels to Ayungin shoal which is about one hundred and five nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, in May 2013. The Philippines had almost eight of their soldier stationed within their two hundred nautical miles which is their economic zone. Just like the leaves are wrapped around the cabbage, China also adheres to the Philippines admittance to the Ayungin shoal with ships, boats and also sending navy destroyers in order to create a blockade making Philippines unable to receive the supplies and also shipment of food.

The Philippines and China have a bigger dispute because just like China, the Philippines also claim Spratly as being a part of their territory.  Their claim is because of the geographical closeness. Philippines claim that their stretch of Islands is very close to the Spratly Islands than any other country. With that being said they also say that they have been controlling the islands for years and will not stop from doing so. Tensions between China and the Philippines have simmered over the years and sometimes they’ve boiled over. In 2012 the Philippines Navy harassed Chinese fishing boats and arrested the crew of one boat which escalated into a tense standoff. The case that was taken to the Permanent Court of Arbitration by the Philippines, its decision was announced in July 2016 which was in Philippines prejudice who imposes that China had tried invading their territory in the South China Sea. After this China has not only abandoned the ruling but the imposition of the law doesn’t seem likely. After this decision the whole International community turned against China but China is stuck here because for its ambitious projects like one belt one road and Silk Road China needs full support from the International Community.


Taiwan claims on Spratly Islands are similar to the ones that are of China. They are based on history, discovery and occupation. They both have claimed the Spratly Islands and other islands nearby since the ancient times. Since 1949, both of the states have shown their dominance over the region by attempting to occupy the islands.

Through physical presence in the region, Taiwan thinks that it can make a successful effort in legalizing its claims over the Spratly Islands. Both China and Taiwan claim on the entire region of the Spratly Islands. Taiwan wants to maintain a complete control and authority in the regions. When the WW-II ended, Taiwan took possession of the Itu Aba Island, which is also the largest Island of the region. In 1948, Taiwanese forces withdrew because of the Chinese civil war but got deployed again in 1956 after the 1952 peace conference between the Republic of China (at that time) and Japan. But the conference was negotiated by Taiwan because of the absence of People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan although negotiated a separate treaty with Japan in which Japan renounced all right, titles and claim to Taiwan including the Spratly Islands as well. Even though Taiwan practiced sovereignty over Itu Aba Island and that is almost justified since 1956. The justification they give of international law is valid but it does not extend to the claim over other islands that are occupied by other states. They claim the entire archipelago which is inconsistent with the principles of international law, as according to the claims of China.


Vietnam for the first time, declared its sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands was through a White Paper circulated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1974. On the basis of historical evidence, economic development and effective administration as well as the colonial inheritance from the France, Vietnam also claims sovereignty over entire area of Spratly Island. In the white paper that was circulated in the Foreign Ministry, Vietnam showed the long history of activities in the Spratly Islands by introducing maps and records. The features date all the way back to the 17th century.

It claims that the Vietnamese emperors administrated and controlled the archipelago since 17th-19th centuries when there was the Nguyen Dynasty. In 1975, they claimed over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands with emphasis that Vietnam fulfilled all the requirements of the international law to prove that it has legal claims over the archipelagos. Vietnam has been consolidating their claim by occupying the Paracel Islands throughout the course of history. The Spratly have been exploited by the Vietnamese fishermen and laborers for many centuries.

During the independence from France, Vietnam was invaded by China, which led to the loss of effective administration on the archipelago. Between 1973 and 1975, Vietnam occupied thirteen islands of Spratly Islands and in 1989, it occupied three more. Since then, Vietnam has taken more features of the Spratly Islands under occupation. They deployed troops on several of those islands and incorporated those areas into Vietnam in official maps as Vietnamese territory.

The international law doesn’t support the historical claims without the evidence of occupation and permanent settlement on the waters. The right of Vietnam after the cession from the French is also not supported because of few reasons. It could be either that the France itself wasn’t entitled to have a legitimate claim over the archipelago. In fact, France did not even have the colonial control and a lawful claim over the Spratly Island. Vietnam has even controlled most number of islands from the Spratly Islands but it also doesn’t claim over all of the Spratly Island features.

As it is described in article 76 of the UNCLOS, the area that seems to be a natural prolongation of the land territory, that is a continental shelf but it extends to 350nm, will be justified under the article 76. From the western part of the Spratly archipelago, it extends from the south and east part of the Mekong Delta and is relatively shallow. This side of the archipelago comes under the article 76 of the UNCLOS and Vietnam has a strong continental shelf claim on it.


Malaysia claimed their rights over the Spratly Islands when they extended their country’s continental shelf and EEZ to the southernmost parts of the Spratly Islands in an official map published in 1979. The claims are due to geological proximity and specifically the continental shelf provisions of UNCLOS. The emphasis of the claim is that the island features were terra nullius before the actual claim. Malaysia claimed the sovereignty over all of the islands within its continental shelf under the UNCLOS.

The latest claimant has been Malaysia’s approval of the Exclusive Economic Zone Act that included the features of the Spratly Islands within its EEZ. It claimed sovereignty on twelve islands and stationed troops on Swallow Reef in 1977, since then the number of troops and the islands on which they got deployed on also have increased.

The claims by Malaysia under UNCLOS might be legitimate but that also allows the states to practice sovereignty over the living and non-living resources within the continental shelf the state controls. But if the continental shelf in question is under jurisdiction of another state, even UNCLOS doesn’t provide the provisions for that. According to the UNCLOS, article 76, the continental shelf is the submerged prolongation of a land of coastal state which can consist of sea beds, and subsoil of the land. Malaysia uses this provision to claim the Spratly Islands but there are no arrangements that UNCLOS also refers same for the islands, rocks or any such feature above the sea-level.

Malaysia has been effective in controlling the one feature of the Spratly Island since 1983 and two others as well since 1986. Only the Swallow Reef is one of the features under the control of Malaysia that is also considered as an island. The other occupied features are claimed as the ‘low-tide elevations’ but they are beyond the territorial sea of the mainland. In accordance with article 13 of the UNCLOS, these features cannot form the basis for the extension of the territorial sea. Even though the military garrisons reinforced made Malaysia’s control more effective but still it cannot have legitimate permanent occupation in the Spratly features because it is the most recent state to practice the sovereignty over the Spratly groups.

Another feature of Spratly group, Amboyna Cay, Malaysia claims a 12nm territorial sea brings up the question of effective control between Vietnam and Malaysia. The tussle is because Vietnamese garrison was established on the feature earlier than Malaysian garrison but the Malaysian claims continue to stay there.


Latest developments in the South China Sea involve increased military tensions as China, the United States, and various other countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Chi0na, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei compete for authority in the region. China’s maritime advancements have not just constant source of attention for USA policymakers, but have also shaped insecurity in the states of the region. Prospects of regional integration, enhancement of economic opportunities, and existence of abundant natural resources have further provided extra-regional states to influence the regional security patterns.

U.S. interests in the South China Sea fall into broad categories comprising of different aspects: Economic interests (Oil- plus trading benefits) tied to the sea-lanes, Defense ties with allies and other security partners. US want to dominate this area by militarizing and they want permanent base in this area to counter China’s implications for the global balance of power and influence. As China is also in a quest for to be the hegemon of the world therefore fulfilling the belief that a hegemon must be able to control the channels of communication and trade. Now, South China Sea has potential of becoming world’s most used channel of trade and communications and China is connecting the regions by developing the communication infrastructure across the regions. USA has long enjoyed the primacy in the region and navigated unilaterally but with the domination of China on world stage it is gradually declining. So, to contain and counter the expansionist approach of China, USA wants to secure its own status of global hegemon.

USA has criticized China’s construction of Islands and buildup of military facilities in the South China Sea and is anxious that they could be used to contain free nautical moment of considerable significance. The USA believes that under the UN convention of the law of the sea (UNCLOS) different claimants of the region should have access to navigate the sea and conduct military operations within it.

Mishal Batool, Haleema Naz, Mahnoor Malik Ameer, Sania Noor are graduate students at Fatima Jinnah Women University.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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