A Primer on the Spratly Islands Dispute

As a Filipino, I have always been proud of our race. Philippines may be one of the lower-tier countries in Southeast Asia, but we are proud of who we are and what we do. There are times, however, that this pride gets in the way of cool and rational thinking. A quick review of the history of the Philippines will show us the overwhelming insecurity of the Filipino race after years of abuse, slavery, and oppression from other nations. As a result, we rise our fists in impetuous rage at the slightest provocation. I believe that this is mob mentality and one of the many black spots on our otherwise beautiful culture.

The goal of this primer is to provide information, nothing more and nothing less, over the ongoing Spratly Islands dispute between China and the Philippines. I will not take sides. I will not attempt to solve the issue. I only want to take a little of your time to outline the information being provided to the public, hoping that this little project will divert what now appears to be a Cold War between the two countries to a battle of the mind. We should always remember that stupid wars have been fought over simple misunderstanding. I hope this dispute will not come into that.

This will not be a simple issue. I will try to explain everything in simple terms, referencing essential information when necessary, but terminology and research can only do much. The rest is up to you, Reader.

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Is there any disclaimer?

Yes, there is. First of all, the Reader has to understand that I am not a lawyer, a historian, a government official, or even someone with intricate knowledge of the Islands or the dispute. I am only a law student, and even that has no merit at all. Second, this is not an original research. All information that you are going to read are derived from various Internet and print sources which are referenced at the end of the article. I merely summarized the essential details for your easy reading. Third. Although I checked every information below to be true, there will be always that tragic flaw which I undoubtedly missed.

As a final note – yes, you may use the information below in any (legal) way possible. The purpose of the primer is to inspire rational thinking after all. However, if you are going to give a report or partake in formal debate using this information, be aware that that is a very bad idea and you should probably research more into the issue. Thank you.

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What are the Spratly Islands?

The Spratly Islands is an archipelago of more than 100 small islands, cays, and reefs. It spans over 410,000 square kilometers of central South China Sea and totals to over four square kilometers of land. The islands are thought to be volcanic in origin. Although the islands are not suitable for planting crops, research around the area has shown probability of a rich source of oil under the seabed. As of now, the main sources of trade in the area are fishery, shipping, and on a smaller degree, tourism.

Spratly Islands is only its English name. The other claimant countries also have their own name for the group of islands. Although it was originally known as ‘Horsburgh’s Storm Island’, the Admirality renamed it ‘Spratly Islands’ after Richard Spratly, master of British whaler Cyrus South Seaman, who sighted the scattered islands on 1843 and published it in The Nautical Magazine during the same year.

Spratly Islands is known as Kapuluang Kalayaan in the Philippines; Nansha Islands (南沙群島) by the Chinese; and Truong Sa by the Vietnamese.

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What is Scarborough Shoal?

Scarborough Shoal lies outside of the Spratly Islands. It is not exactly a shoal, i.e., a single mass of sandbank, but rather an archipelago of small islands and reefs on its own. Although Scarborough is almost similar to Spratly, it is significantly much smaller, occupying only 150 square kilometers of the South China Sea. I believe the comment made by Colonel Bayley – a South African colonial military commander commissioned under the British Army from 1877 to 1892 – of the archipelago best describes the beautiful yet terrifying landscape and history of the land mass:

The Scarborough shoal was seen about four miles distant, a high rock, abruptly rising from the sea some hundred feet high, with breakers dashing over it, foaming and roaring most terrifically. The wind had completely subsided, leaving an enormous swell mountains high, driving us toward the fatal rock, where a Chinaman named “Scarborough” had been wrecked some years before and every soul perished (parts of the wreck having been afterwards discovered by sloops sent in search of her), from whence the shoal derived its name.

Scarborough Shoal is known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) by the Chinese.

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Why are the Spratly Islands important?

First, there is a rich economy to be had in the Islands. It is a prime fishing spot and can also serve as a trade route between mercantile countries. On top of that, there are also reports of vast natural gas and oil reserves deep in the seabed.  More than economy, however, is sovereignty. The country who controls a majority of the Islands also controls the South China Sea. The country can build naval forts, block enemy trades, and well, generally reign supreme over the other countries who need the optimum trade route most. It is a dangerous, terrible power which all the claimant countries seek to have.

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What is the history behind the Spratly Islands?

14th century: The ancient Chinese maps, Shengjiao guangbei tu and Hunyi jiangli tu, were dated to have been made around this century. The combined map shows a group of islands called ‘Thousand Li Stretch of Sands’ and ‘Ten-Thousand Li of Stone Pools’ which the Chinese alleges to be the Spratly Islands.

18th century: Le Quy Don, a Vietnamese polymath and government official, recorded that Truong Sa (an island west of Spratly) belongs to the Quang Ngãi District and that the Vietnamese did a shipping trade around the area.

early 19th century: Vietnamese maps record the Spratly Islands grouped with the Paracel Islands, a small archipelago of islets and reefs near Vietnam and China that is almost similar to the Spratlys. They called these islands Bai Cat Vang or the Golden Sandbanks.

1885: Vietnam became part of French Indochina, the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia.

1927: The Chinese Civil War started.

1933: France occupied part of the Spratly Islands, claiming them in behalf of Vietnam. The Republic of China challenged this move.

1939: World War II erupted. Japan occupied some of the islands in Spratly as a submarine base.

1940: Germany captured France. The management of French Indochina transferred from the French Third Republic to Vichy France.

1941: After the war in the Pacific, France gave up the entirety of French Indochina to the Japanese which, in turn, established the Empire of Vietnam.

1945: Japan surrenders to the Allied Powers, effectively ending the war. The Republic of China reasserts its claim to the entirety of Spratly.

1946: The First Indochina War started between French troops and the Viet Minh. The Republic of China seized Itu Alba Island, the largest island out of all the Spratly group of islands, and established permanent physical presence around the area.

1947: Tomás Cloma, a Filipino lawyer and fishing magnate, discovered some of the uninhabited Spratly Islands. He was aspiring to open a cannery and guano deposits in the Islands as part of his fishing enterprise.

1949: The Chinese Civil War ended with the split of China into two – Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

1950: The Republic of China withdraws its troops from Spratly as they retreat from the Communist Party of China to Taiwan.

1951: Japan signs the Treaty of San Francisco, where they renounced all claims to the Spratly Islands. During the treaty, the Soviet Union proposes that the Islands be given to China. This was overwhelmingly rejected. Afterwards, Vietnam declared that the islands be part of their territory. This was not contested by the other delegates.

1954: The First Indochina War ended, which resulted to the split of Vietnam into two – the North and the South. South Vietnam continued to exercise military presence over the majority of the Spratly Islands.

1956: Cloma and 40 of his men returned to formally claim the eastern portion of the Spratly Islands. He posted notices in each of the uninhabited islands where he claimed the islands as his own. He called the islands Freedomland. The Republic of China challenged this claim and returned their troops to the islands as defensive measure.

1958: The People’s Republic of China issued a declaration defining their territorial waters which included the Spratly Islands. Pham Vam Dong, prime minister of North Vietnam, accepted this declaration; however, international scholars argue that as the Spratly Islands is part of South Vietnam, Pham Van Dong has no legal right to accept or reject any declaration regarding the Spratly Islands.

1959: The Second Indochina War, known popularly as the Vietnam War, started between North and South Vietnam.

1968: The Philippines first sent troops to the Spratly Islands.

1974: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos imprisoned Cloma and forced him to cede his private claim to the Spratly Islands for one peso. Cloma submitted, thus transferring ownership of the islands to the Republic of the Philippines. Marcos changed the name of the islands to Kalayaan.

1975: The Vietnam War ended after the fall of Saigon and with the victory of North Vietnam.

1976: The North and South Vietnam is reunified to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

1979: Malaysia begins to annex the southern portion of the Spratly Islands.

1983: The Chinese Toponymy Committee publicized the approved names of the 159 islands, reefs, islets, and shoals in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands.

1984: Brunei asserts that under the United Nations Law of the Sea, their Exclusive Economic Zone extends to some part of the Spratly Islands because they are under the same continental shelf as their country’s domain.

1999: A French oil company found ancient Chinese pottery and other treasures from the bottom of the South China Sea near the Spratlys. The pottery was dated to be from the 15th century.

2002: The Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China signed the ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ which stipulates that the nations claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands must commit to the status quo. This means that no claimant nation should erect new structure over the disputed territories and thus can only maintain establishments already existing during the time of the declaration.

2004: The unified Vietnam state asserted its claim to the Spratly Islands.

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Who is claiming what and how?

People’s Republic of China and Taiwan

Both countries lay claim to all of the Spratly Islands as well as Scarborough Shoal. If you go back to the history of the Spratly Islands, you can see that the Republic of China (now Taiwan) has maintained physical presence on the Islands except a brief period from 1950 to 1956 where they have to retreat as result of the Chinese Civil War. This presence, together with tangible evidence that they have been on the Islands for hundreds of years dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, serves as the primary basis of their claims.

The Republic of the Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines has two grounds for their claim of the Spratly Islands – legal and geographical. It should be noted that the Republic does not seek to claim all of the islands but only the eastern portion of it.

Let us tackle the legal ground first. According to the Philippines, when Japan renounced their claim on the Islands in 1951, the islands became res nullius and thus open for acquisition. Res nullius is Latin for nobody’s property. If an object is res nullius, it can be validly acquired by whoever declares it as his or her own. In the case of the Spratly Islands, when Japan renounced their claim, the Islands became terra nullius, a specific kind of res nullius, which means  ‘no man’s land’. Thus, when Tomás Cloma declared the uninhabited islands as his own in 1956, he became the owner of these islands. When he sold the Islands to the Republic for one peso, the Republic of the Philippines became the owner of the disputed land.

The geographical ground is not as easy to explain but let me try, shall we? According to the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Land and the Sea or UNCLOS, a country has sole exploitation rights over external waters 200 nautical miles from the nearest baseline. This is the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. As a general rule, the baseline is the low-water line, i.e., the farthest level that the seawater can reach during low tide. However, in cases where the country is an archipelago or deeply indented, straight baselines may be used. Think of it as some sort of a connect-the-dots game where the dots are the farthest low-water line of each indent reaching to the sea. If you apply the straight baselines rule, the EEZ of the Philippines extends well to the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal.

The problem, however, with both the legal and geographical claims is that they assume that the Islands are terra nullius in the first place. The UNCLOS cannot unjustly claim for one country what has already been claimed by another country.

Brunei and Malaysia

Brunei and Malaysia do not lay claim to all of the Islands but only the southern portion which their respective continental shelves can reach.

Like the Republic of the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia principally use the UNCLOS as ground for their claims. According to the UNCLOS, a country still has exclusive rights to harvest minerals in the subsoil (but not the creatures) even if it is well over the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, provided that it does not exceed 350 nautical miles and that the subsoil is part of the country’s continental shelf. Brunei and Malaysia claim that their respective continental shelves extend to the disputed Islands.

Vietnam

Vietnam does not lay claim to all but only a majority of the Islands.

Like Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam use historical fact as evidence that they occupied the Islands since the 17th century. The French, who annexed Vietnam in 1885 to be a part of their colonial empire, recognized this right and claimed the Islands in behalf of Vietnam. Moreover, during the peace treaty with Japan at San Francisco, the other delegates did not contest when Vietnam declared the Islands to be theirs. They are the only country to establish a communal district in the Islands.

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Who owns Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal?

Like I said in the Introduction, this primer does not mean to take sides. In my opinion, however, historical sovereignty reigns supreme more than geographical sovereignty. The problem with historical sovereignty, however, is how fickle history can be. For Vietnam, People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan to rightfully claim the Islands, they must be able to prove that (1) they occupied the Islands first, and (2) that they did not abandon or ceased to own the Islands which will give way for other countries to claim the Islands. It is only when these two requisites are proved not to exist that the other countries who allege the Islands to be terra nullius – the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia – can validly claim the Islands. This is a battle, therefore, not of arms but of conflicting evidences. I only hope that it stays that way.

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What’s next?

You’re next. Do not stop here. Do your research. Gather evidences. Engage in casual debate with family and friends. The most important advice that I can give, however, is to always respect your enemy. The recent ‘cyberwar’ between China and the Philippines is nothing but immaturity at its worst. The Islands may be a vital economic resource, but do we – not only the Philippines but also the other countries – need to sacrifice honor and go that low to defame the other country? Think about it. We are civilized people after all.

Anyway, for all that it’s worth, I hope that this primer helped some of you to obtain some information about the ongoing dispute. If there is a fact that I was able to miss, to credit, or to check as true, do not hesitate to send me a message at my Contact page. This primer will not go far with my skill. I need your help and I need it bad. Peace, brother!

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References:

APA? MLA? Nah. I have my own reference guide. Let’s be casual, okay? Good. Awesome. Cool.

1. The Wikipedia pages about the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly Islands dispute, French IndochinaVichy France, Vietnam, China, Japan, the Republic of the Philippines, the First Indochina War, the Vietnam War, World War II, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Tomás Cloma, Richard Spratly, Res and terra nullius, and Treaty of San Francisco. Accessed 1 May 2012.

2. Diary of Colonel Bayly: 12th Regiment. 1796 – 1830. Published 1896. Colonel Bayly’s description of Scarborough Shoal can be found in page 108.

3. CIA – The World Factbook on its description of the Spratly Islands. Accessed 1 May 2012.

5. Historical Evidence to Support China’s Sovereignty over Nansha Islands. Posted 17 November 2000. Accessed 1 May 2012.

6. China’s War With Vietnam, 1979: Issues, Decisions, and Implications. Published 1987. The territorial dispute over Spratly Islands can be found in page 48.

7. China’s Criticism of the early Vietnamese maps. Posted 2004. Accessed 1 May 2012.

8. Spratly Islands History Timeline. Accessed 2 May 2012.

9. Asia-Pacific Undersea treasure chest stirs up tensions. Posted 29 April 1999. Accessed 1 May 2012.

10. Q&A: South China Sea dispute. Posted 19 July 2011. Accessed 2 May 2012.

11. The Spratly Islands Dispute: Why is this important?. Posted 13 October 2011. Accessed 2 May 2012.

12. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. Promulgated 1982.

13. Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Promulgated 2002.

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