The Spratly Islands lie in the South China Sea, occupying a 150,000 square mile area between Malaysia and Brunei to the south, Vietnam to the west, the Philippines to the east, the People's Republic of China to the northeast, and Taiwan far to the north. The chain consists of numerous islands, islets, reefs and coral atolls. Those pieces of dry land that can be classified legally as islands are tiny, nothing more than guano and scrub-covered coral atolls that have risen marginally above sea level. The largest island in the chain, Itu Aba, is only 0.4 square kilometers in area. The Spratlys have been variously described by journalists as "a group of tiny islands," "a motley collection of atolls [and] coral reefs," and "flyspecks of land in the South China Sea." The island group also has been given several proper names: the Nansha Islands (China), the Truong Sa archipelago (Vietnam), Kalayaan or "Freedomland" (the Philippines) and, of course, the Spratlys. Until the second half of this century, the Spratlys were almost entirely ignored by the world community. The only resources the islands offered were small guano and phosphate deposits, seashells, turtle meat, and fish. These resources were enough to attract only occasional exploitation by adventurous fisherman and phosphate miners. The tiny size, remoteness, and vulnerability of the islands to tropical storms made them unattractive to permanent settlement, and the island group was perhaps best known by mariners, who were careful to avoid the countless reefs and shoals in the region marked as "dangerous ground" on their charts. The area remained largely unnoticed by the world until the early 1970's, when an Asian oil boom-and record-high world oil pricesstimulated an increase in oil exploration in the South China Sea. Major oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Malaysia and Brunei, just to the south of the Spratlys. In 1973, Russian seismologists explored and found signs of oil fields off the coast of North Vietnam, to the west of the Spratlys. That same year, the Philippines embarked on an ambitious campaign of oil exploration off the island of Palawan, which lies immediately to the east of the Spratlys. With major oil strikes virtually surrounding the Spratlys, it was no wonder that the attention of a number of Southeast Asian nations ultimately turned to these tiny islands. Today, it is acknowledged by the international oil industry that the Spratlys may lie atop an "elephant" of petroleum, with potential to yield in excess of a billion barrels of oil and untold quantities of natural gas. On this basis alone, these forgotten islands have become the most sought-after property in Asia. The recently ratified 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (hereinafter LOS) codifies the "bundle of rights" that accrue to a state which has territorial sovereignty over an island or a group of islands. Most important among these rights is the exclusive right to exploit the resources of the sea bed surrounding an island or archipelago. The state holding territorial sovereignty over an island is allowed, under the LOS, to establish a 12-mile territorial sea and a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the island. If the state has territorial sovereignty over an entire archipelago, it has the right to draw a straight baseline between the outermost islands and will have exclusive rights to exploit the resources of the sea bed within the area enclosed by that baseline. To the claimants vying for the Spratlys, the implications of territorial sovereignty over the islands under the LOS are all too clear. In addition to its potential resources, the Spratlys archipelago occupies a strategic location. Lying between the coast of Vietnam on the west and the Philippines to the east, the Spratlys occupy a potential blocking position for ships transiting the South China Sea. Aircraft based in the Spratlys would be within range of the Malacca and Sunda Straits, bottlenecks through which shipping in the South China Sea must pass in order to enter the Indian Ocean. A military presence, such as an airfield located in the Spratlys, could effectively halt all shipping in the South China Sea in the event of a conflict. This is a fact of no small consequence to nations in the region, who are currently restructuring military relationships in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Today, six Asian nations-the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China-vigorously assert claims of sovereignty over all or parts of the Spratlys. Based on these assertions, journalists are using new and more ominous phrases to describe the Spratlys: "the eye of a political typhoon" and "a potential Falklands." With so much at stake, the claimants to the Spratlys have pursued the sovereignty issue in various ways. All except Brunei have taken steps to physically occupy numbers of islands, including landing garrison troops, erecting stone "sovereignty markers," and building lighthouses and weather stations. This is the practical approach to acquiring sovereignty, applying the simple theory that "possession is nine-tenths of the law." The effort to occupy the islands is also an element of a legal approach to establishing sovereignty, as will be explained in detail in Section III of this article. Some of the claimants have backed their occupations with naval patrols, in an attempt to consolidate their own holdings and to prevent others from expanding occupation to remaining islands. One nation, Malaysia, has even taken the unique step of establishing a small resort on a disputed island. While taking these practical measures, all of the claimant nations have been careful to craft legal claims to the Spratlys, both to justify their current occupation of the islands and to prepare for any negotiation or arbitration proceedings that may be necessary to settle the dispute. The prospect of negotiating a settlement is being treated gingerly by the disputants, as the militarily more powerful nations-China and Vietnam-each carefully avoid the subject of multilateral negotiations on the issue of sovereignty, while trying to entice and cajole weaker disputants into bilateral talks on the issue. This article will review and analyze the various legal arguments advanced by the six states currently claiming territorial sovereignty in the Spratlys. This will begin in Part II with a review of the history of the dispute, and will be followed by a discussion of the primary legal theories under which the disparate claimants might assert claim to territorial sovereignty over remote islands in Part III. Part IV will then explore the alternative methods-legal and practical-that these states may use in order to finally settle the dispute over the islands. In Part V, some conclusions will be drawn concerning the merits of these methods.
Brian K. Murphy,
Dangerous Ground: The Spratly Islands And International Law,
Ocean & Coastal L.J.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/oclj/vol1/iss2/3