Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Spratyls and Other South China Sea Islands Disputes

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

The Spratyls and Other South China Sea Islands Disputes

Article excerpt

The potential large scale suboceanic oil deposits has made the Spratlys and other South China Sea uninhabited islands the subject of conflicting territorial claims by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Key Words: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Spratly islands, Paracel, Pratas, Macclesfield Bank, South China Sea, international disputes, oil reserves.

While the end of the "Cold War" witnessed the elimination of the USSR, tensions remain in Eastern Asia and territorial disputes among countries there remain an important source of adversarial relations. This article seeks to summarize the disputes which have arisen over the Spratly, Paracel, and other low-lying coral reefs, atolls and shoals in the South China Sea, the sovereignty of which is contested in whole or in part by the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Sovereignty talks over these South China Sea islands have hardly begun, and popular forces unleashed by the process of political change and economic difficulties in the region will only complicate matters, as will the struggle for influence over policy-making between China's military and foreign affairs establishments. However, the South China Sea also lies astride sea-lanes of strategic importance and its seabed is potentially rich in hydrocarbon. As such, it is imperative that we take into account the role of transnational actors, such as multinational oil companies or participants of confidencebuilding workshops, and the claims of sub-national actors, in influencing the actions of state leaders or government negotiators.

A Brief History of Claims

The PRC, Taiwan and Vietnam each lay claim to all of the disputed South China Sea islands; Malaysia and the Philippines claim several but not all of the Spratly islands, and Brunei claims one submerged reef. The PRC and Taiwan both assert the same historical claim that the South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times, based on archaeological findings of ancient Chinese coins, pottery fragments and cooking utensils most probably left behind by Chinese fishermen to the area.' However, it was only when the French colonial authorities of Vietnam asserted its presence over the islands in 1933 that the first effective administration was established over them.2 Between 1939 and 1945, the Paracel and Spratly island groups were occupied by Japan and turned into submarine bases. After the Japanese surrender, a naval contingent from the Republic of China inspected the Paracels and the Spratlys and briefly garrisoned the largest island in the Spratly groups called Taiping or Itu Aba before withdrawing to Taiwan on the heels of the Nationalist defeat.3 The Philippine's claim to the Spratlys was based on the discovery of several islands in the archipelago by a Filipino national by the name of Tomas Cloma in 1947, on the basis of which he declared a state of "Kalayaan" (Freedomland) with himself as government leader.4 Although Cloma transferred his claim to the Philippines government in 1971, already his earlier proclamation of ownership had spurred Taiwan to reoccupy Taiping Island and the Republic of (South) Vietnam to assert its claim to the Paracels and Spratlys in 1956.5 In September 1973, the South Vietnamese navy occupied several islands in both island groups, but lost the Paracels to the Chinese after a brief naval engagement in January 1974. The government of reunified Vietnam subsequently took over the South Vietnamese claims, but its position was undercut by North Vietnamese support for Chinese sovereignty claims in 1956 and 1958, the latter in the form of a letter sent by North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong to the Chinese State Council.6 The more recent claims of Malaysia and Brunei are based on the extension of their continental shelf and 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) respectively to include the islands under dispute. …

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