By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University
For several years now, the media have focused on China’s reclamation of coral islets in the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea. Current news reports make it seem as if China has made aggressive moves in that area to gain control of the South China Sea. However, that conclusion ignores the rest of the story.
The Spratly Islands cover more than 164,000 square miles from southern Vietnam to the Philippines. They lie on a shallow continental shelf which has an average depth of only 600 feet. The area includes coral reefs, rock formations, islets, cays, atolls and 18 small islands.
However, most of these formations are underwater at high tide. As a result, the total land mass of those 18 islands is fewer than 500 acres. The only indigenous inhabitants of the Spratly Islands are seabirds.
Spratly Islands Have Strategic Importance to World Shipping and National Security
Why is there international interest in the Spratly Islands? They are located close to many of the world’s major shipping routes.
For instance, most of the oil from the Middle East is shipped through this area to China, Japan and South Korea. Without control of these shipping lanes, a nation’s national security could be put at risk.
That is likely one of the primary reasons for China’s renewed interest in developing the Spratly Islands it occupies. The Spratleys also have many quality fishing areas and potentially, though unverified, significant oil and natural gas deposits.
Most of the countries bordering the South China Sea – primarily the Philippines – lay some type of claim to the Spratly Islands area. Those countries include China, although it does not claim any of the 18 islands.
These conflicting claims led to at least one deadly skirmish in 1988, when China and Vietnam fought a naval battle over the Johnson South Reef. Seventy Vietnamese sailors were killed. In general, who owns or occupies what geographic features among the Spratly Islands remains unclear.
To date, the Philippines is the only country to challenge China’s actions in the Spratlys in an international court. In 2013, the Manila government instituted proceedings against China regarding the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Netherlands.
This court is not part of the United Nations and China rejected the charges. But in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China had no legal basis for its claims, either to the South China Sea or to the Spratly Islands.
China Claimed Some Areas and Began Military-Related Construction in 2013
In 2013, China began dredging and reclaiming land on three of its seized islets: Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson South Reef and Mischief Reef. The Beijing government constructed large ports, 10,000-foot runways and communications, logistics and intelligence facilities on these man-made islands.
China has also weaponized all three islets with anti-aircraft guns. This aggressive activity in just a few years caught most countries in the region by surprise.
Are China’s actions really designed to “push the envelope” and alter the balance of power in the Spratly Islands archipelago? Perhaps not.
Some countries surrounding the Spratlys maintain a military presence in the area. The country with the largest presence is Vietnam, with 34 military outposts on 21 sites.
Also, the Philippines claims nine sites, with troops permanently stationed on five islands since 1980. Malaysia claims five sites with troops and facilities stationed on each. Taiwan claims only the Itu Aba Island, the largest of the Spratlys, and Brunei claims only the Louisa Reef.
From China’s perspective, it had not done nearly as much as other countries with claims have done. In 2013, China also began massive reclamation projects on all seven of its claimed coral reefs, turning them into man-made islands.
The U.S. Department of Defense in 2016 reported that China had reclaimed more than 3,200 acres in order to have greater control over this maritime region. The U.S. security concern is that China might decide to declare an air defense identification zone or something similar over the region. China has declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, which the U.S. and other countries do not recognize.
Why Not Simply Recognize the Existing Installation Areas as Permanent Territories?
An alternative approach to resolving this conundrum is to simply recognize the facts on the ground. Instead of parceling out the Spratly Islands among the various area nations, based on subjective claims, why not just allow the installations that have been claimed to become permanent territory of the occupying country with the provision that no new area can be taken? That would also end any further reclamation projects and stop the current ecological destruction currently occurring on the Spratly Islands.
In addition, the South China Sea needs to be renamed to preclude any future unwarranted claims by China. My recommendation would be to rename it to the Spratly Sea.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He retired as a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force after 30 years of service.