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The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia (Sabah), about one third of the way from there to southern Vietnam. They comprise less than four square kilometers of land area spread over more than 425,000 square kilometers of sea. The Spratlys are one of three archipelagos of the South China Sea which comprise more than 30,000 islands and reefs and which complicate governance and economics in that region of Southeast Asia. Such small and remote islands have little economic value in themselves, but are important in establishing international boundaries. There are no native islanders but there are rich fishing grounds and initial surveys indicate the islands may contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas.
About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from Vietnam, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei has also claimed an EEZ in the southeastern part of the Spratlys encompassing just one area of small islands above mean high water (on Louisa Reef.)Early cartography
Geographic map of Spratlys. Click for more detailed image. For a satellite images of the islands, tagged by occupying country, see here.The first possible human interaction with the Spratly Islands dates back between 600 BCE to 3 BCE. This is based on the theoretical migration patterns of the people of Nanyue (southern China and northern Vietnam) and Old Champa kingdom who may have migrated from Borneo, which may have led them through the Spratly Islands.
Ancient Chinese maps record the "Thousand Li Stretch of Sands"; Qianli Changsha (千里長沙) and the "Ten-Thousand Li of Stone Pools"; Wanli Shitang (萬里石塘),which China today claims refers to the Spratly Islands. The Wanli Shitang have been explored by the Chinese since the Yuan Dynasty and may have been considered by them to have been within their national boundaries. They are also referenced in the 13th century, followed by the Ming Dynasty. When the Ming Dynasty collapsed, the Qing Dynasty continued to include the territory in maps compiled in 1724,1755, 1767,1810,and 1817. A Vietnamese map from 1834 also includes the Spratly Islands clumped in with the Paracels (a common occurrence on maps of that time) labeled as "Wanli Changsha".
According to Hanoi, old Vietnamese maps record Bãi Cát Vàng (Golden Sandbanks, referring to both Paracels and the Spratly Islands) which lay near the Coast of the central Vietnam as early as 1838. In Phủ Biên Tạp Lục (Frontier Chronicles) by the scholar Le Quy Don, Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa were defined as belonging to Quảng Ngãi District. He described it as where sea products and shipwrecked cargoes were available to be collected. Vietnamese text written in the 17th century referenced government-sponsored economic activities during the Le Dynasty, 200 years earlier. The Vietnamese government conducted several geographical surveys of the islands in the 18th century.Despite the fact that China and Vietnam both made a claim to these territories simultaneously, at the time, neither side was aware that their neighbor had already charted and made claims to the same stretch of islands.
The islands were sporadically visited throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by mariners from different European powers (including Richard Spratly, after whom the island group derives its most recognizable English name). However, these nations showed little interest in the islands. In 1883, German boats surveyed the Spratly and Paracel Islands but withdrew the survey eventually after receiving protests from the Nguyen Dynasty. Many European maps before the 20th century do not even make mention of this region.
Military conflictMain article: Spratly Islands dispute
In 1933, France asserted its claims from 1887 to the Spratly and Paracel Islands on behalf of its then-colony Vietnam. It occupied a number of the Spratly Islands, including Itu Aba, built weather stations on two, and administered them as part of French Indochina. This occupation was protested by the Republic of China government because France admitted finding Chinese fishermen there when French warships visited the nine islands. In 1935, the ROC government also announced a sovereignty claim on the Spratly Islands. Japan occupied some of the islands in 1939 during World War II, and used the islands as a submarine base for the occupation of Southeast Asia. During the occupation, these islands were called Shinnan Shoto (新南諸島), literally the New Southern Islands, and put under the governance of Taiwan together with the Paracel Islands (西沙群岛). In 1945, The Republic of China sent its Naval ships to take control of the islands after the surrender of Japan. It had chosen the largest and perhaps the only inhabitable island, Itu Aba Island, as its base, and renamed the island under the name of the naval vessel as Taiping. The KMT force of Republic Of China briefly abandoned the islands after its defeat in China's civil war in 1949, but re-established the base in 1956. Today, Itu Aba Island, is still administrated by the Republic of China,
Following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, China re-claimed the entirety of the Spratly Islands (including Itu Aba), accepting the Japanese surrender on the islands based on the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations. The ROC government withdrew from most of the Spratly and Paracel Islands after they retreated to Taiwan from the opposing Communist Party of China, which founded the People's Republic of China in 1949. ROC quietly withdrew troops from Itu Aba in 1950, but reinstated them in 1956 in response to Tomas Cloma's sudden claim to the island as part of Freedomland.
Japan renounced all claims to the islands in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, together with the Paracels, Pratas & other islands captured from China, upon which China reasserted its claim to the islands.
It was unclear whether France continued its claim to the islands after WWII, since none of the islands other than Itu Aba is habitable. The South Vietnamese government took over the Trường Sa administration after the defeat of the French at the end of the First Indochina War. In 1958, the People's Republic of China issued a declaration defining its territorial waters, which encompassed the Spratly Islands. North Vietnam's prime minister, Pham Van Dong, sent a formal note to Zhou Enlai, stating that the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam respects the decision by China regarding the 12 nautical mile limit of territorial waters. In 2004, Vietnam issued a white paper saying, in part,
Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and legal basis to assert its indisputable sovereignty over the territorial waters and islands of Vietnam in the East Sea, among them the Paracels and Spratlys. Nevertheless, for the common security interests of the parties concerned, Vietnam is ready to enter into peaceful negotiations to settle the problem, first and foremost by reaching an agreement on the "Code of Conduct" pending the final solution.
On May 23, 2011, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned the Chinese defense minister of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea.
Aquino said he told visiting Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in their meeting that such an arms race could result if there were more encounters in the disputed and potentially oil-rich Spratly islands.
“When we have these incidents, does it not promote an arms race happening within the region? And when there is an arms race, does not the potential for conflict increase?” he recalled telling Liang.
The Philippines warned China that it might increase its military capabilities.
In May 2011, Chinese naval vessels opened fire on Vietnamese fishing vessels operating off East London Reef (Da Dong Island). Three military vessels were numbered 989, 27 and 28. They showed up with a small group of Chinese fishing vessels. Another Vietnamese fishing vessel was fired on near Cross (Chu Thap) Island. The Chief Commander of Border Guards in Phu Yen Province, Vietnam reports that a total of four Vietnamese vessels were fired upon by Chinese naval vessels.
TelecommunicationsIn 2005, cellular phone base station was erected by the Philippines' Smart Communications on Pag-asa Island.
On 18 May 2011, China Mobile announced that its mobile phone coverage has expanded to the Spratly Islands, under the rationale that it can allow soldiers stationed on the islands, fishermen and merchant vessels within the area to use mobile services, and can also provide assistance during storms and sea rescues. The deployment of China Mobile's support over the islands took roughly one year to fulfil.