Some are no bigger than rocks. Others host landing strips. Most are deserted. But these tiny outcroppings of rock and sand are raising international tensions in the South China Sea.
The Spratly Islands are a grouping of small land bases that are alternatively claimed by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. It isn’t the land these countries want. Little is there. Ever since the bottom fell out of the bird guano fertiliser market, there’s almost nothing of economic value on the islands.
Under the islands it’s a different story.
Oil, gas and other natural resource deposits litter the base of the South China Sea. The area is rich in marine life for commercial fishing. Much of the region’s cargo passes through the area. Internet and telephone cables lay on the seabed. The economic value of the islands has nations making claims based on geography, history, politics and more.
And China wants them.
What alarms the regional neighbour nations is the rise of China’s naval powers. China’s defence spending has increased on average 12% per year as other nations seek to trim their military budgets. In April, The Economist featured a cover story on China’s Military Rise. Interestingly the islands that fence in China – from the Alaskan islands through Japan and the Philippines to Malaysia – create a barrier that China intends to blockade should hostilities with Taiwan point to US intervention.
Today the dispute is played out on stages small and large. Fishing boats have been boarded. Embassies have had protests. Diplomats have intervened. Tour operators have canceled trips. The “tit for tat” retributions have soured relations between China and its neighbours for years.
There is no easy solution in sight. Some hawks say war is possible. The United States has announced 60% of its overseas military assets will be based in Asia-Pacific. China is acquiring its first aircraft carriers. Later this year the Philippines will send back to these islands an oil exploration unit. That will likely prompt a response from China.
In all likelihood the disputes will continue for years. Yet under the waters – far from the cries of diplomats – the beauty of the area flourishes.