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The Dispute in the Spratly Islands

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The Spratly Islands lie in the eastern part of the South China Sea, with the Philippines to its north, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia to its south, and Vietnam and China far away to the west. These six countries claim the Spratly Islands for themselves, but their claims overlap over areas thought to possess substantial natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, and seafood (“Spratly Islands Dispute”). These countries have attempted to share the seas by constructing cooperative agreements, but they constantly dispute and engage in maritime conflicts often because of China’s relative strength. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim the entirety of the Spratly Islands, the Philippines claims the seven islands in the Kalayaan Island Group directly to its west, and Malaysia and Brunei each occupy the couple of features close to their mainland (Gonzalez 20). The U.S., an ally of many of the small southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Malaysia, has refused to take a stance on resolving the dispute since 2012 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Ventrell). Because China has ignored cooperative agreements like the 1992 and 2002 declarations created by ASEAN and is instead capitalizing on other countries’ exclusive economic zones in the Spratly Islands, and the U.S., which has the only military matching China’s, is refusing to aid its allies in the Pacific, the Philippines and other ASEAN nations have no leverage to pursue a fair deal, making inter-state cooperation in the Spratlys weak and one-sided.

Since China’s military is stronger than the southeast Asian nations’, and China seeks to control economic resources in the Spratlys that it would otherwise be barred from, it is difficult to enforce cooperative agreements. When the Philippines attempted to detain Chinese boats for illegal fishing, Chinese Marine Surveillance ships appeared and prevented the navy and coastguard from taking any action (Hayton 160). The Filipino navy and coastguard cannot oppose China for fear of retaliation and greater conflict given China’s stronger, hostile military. This reduces the leverage of the Philippines in cooperating with China. Additionally, when a joint Franco-Filipino party was investigating a wreck on the Scarborough Shoal, one of the Spratlys’ features, in hopes of publishing their findings for the public, a Chinese surveillance ship ordered them out, claiming that the wreck was Chinese property. Bill Hayton believes this happened “so that they could find ‘evidence’ of indisputable Chinese sovereignty” by their own archaeologists (27). China shows disdain for any potential result of inter-state cooperation, as they do not even allow other countries on international waters. Additionally, although China has ratified cooperative agreements like UNCLOS, China often defies it in favor of acquiring economic resources such as fish, stressing that the best response to anti-Chinese decisions is to “ignore the verdict” (Fravel, et al.). Thus, China puts economic gain above rulings and agreements by international organizations.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was formed in 1967 to accelerate economic growth between southeast Asian nations, attempts to facilitate cooperation in the Spratly Islands by creating military conduct agreements with China. As set out in the ASEAN Declaration, the primary aims of ASEAN includes promoting economic growth and active collaboration to strengthen the “foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of southeast Asia nations” ( ASEAN’s motive for facilitating agreements with China is that it will be able to reduce tension and promote peace, or resolve disputes without violence. ASEAN’s most crucial cooperative agreement with China regarding the South China Sea is its 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, which urges nations not to use military force to resolve conflicts ( The only way ASEAN nations could hope to cooperate with China is by minimizing the influence of their military, as China’s military greatly outclasses those of the ASEAN nations. By attempting to demilitarize the situation, ASEAN nations hope that civil agreements with China may be possible and the seas can be shared more fairly.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a framework used by the U.N., a much stronger agency with international support, helps decide the usage of seas and serves as the chief arbitration mechanism for cases like the Spratly Islands. Under UNCLOS, a coastal state can extend total sovereign control up to 12 nautical miles from its coastlines and exploit all economic resources within its “exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” up to 200 nautical miles from the outer limit of its territory (Gonzalez 8). UNCLOS attempts to facilitate cooperation by setting clear guidelines on what territory is granted to what nation, and it can be used to mediate to resolve disputes peacefully. Since it sets stricter, broader guidelines and has the support of most countries in the world, UNCLOS is much more powerful than other methods of facilitating cooperation like agreements fabricated by ASEAN. In 2013, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague decided on the extent of China’s claims in the Spratlys based on the guidelines set at UNCLOS (Fravel, et al.). The Hague court can make decisions for one side or another using UNCLOS, unlike deals, which must be bilateral. Therefore, UNCLOS can be applied to resolving territorial disputes during arbitration and decisions made using it are generally accepted universally.

Cooperation between the ASEAN nations and China in the Spratlys is superficial and one-sided as China often disregards diplomatic agreements, forcefully neglecting the goals of the ASEAN nations. In 1988, Vietnam sent three ships to capture Union Bank, but their ships were intercepted and destroyed by the Chinese. With the Vietnamese ships gone, China had a “freer hand” and began capturing islands already controlled by Vietnam and the Philippines (Hayton 82-83). China’s main intent is not on cooperating, but on imperializing features held other countries, so it does not wish to consider other countries’ goals. Additionally, in 2009, China released a map with a nine-dashed line claiming two hundred nautical miles around each of the Spratly Islands and began to intercept any survey ships entering this area. This angered the southeast Asian countries and the U.S., which sought to protect the freedom of navigation on international waters (Kaplan 173).  China’s view of cooperation is flawed since it involves universal control over a territory rather than sharing the international waters with others. As a result, the agreements China has signed bear no significance to China’s actual actions, and any managed cooperation is largely in China’s favor. In 2013, when the PCA at Hague ruled that China’s claims in its nine-dashed line were invalid, Chinese state media stressed “that the best response is to ignore the verdict… [Xi Jinping’s government] fanned patriotic sentiment throughout the media” (Fravel, et al.). China disrespects decisions made by other world powers, demonstrating how its nationalism outweighs any potential support of its fellow nations. According to Hayton, when China and ASEAN agreed on a code of conduct to avoid future incidents, there were “more statements, more paper, but still no practical change” (88). Hayton believes that agreements made with China have no power on their own, so they are useless. Thus, inter-state cooperation in the Spratlys is superficial and often biased toward China since the states do not implement their diplomatic agreements to resolve disputes peacefully.

However, in the short term, the United States might turn its attention back to the Spratly Islands and help its allies enforce their bilateral agreements with China; but in the long term, the ASEAN nations will likely band together and help themselves balance China’s rising military. According to M. Fravel et al., recent Hague decisions, such as China’s violation of UNCLOS by damaging the Spratlys’ environment, will “inevitably alter perceptions about right and wrong actions in the South China Sea,” and draw new parties into pressuring China. He thinks that these decisions foreshadow how there will be more international support for the ASEAN nations, creating a better framework for negotiations. This could pressure the United States, especially under the new Secretary of State who holds different views than the Obama administration, into joining its allies in condemning China. The U.S. may join the dispute in the Spratlys once again and help outweigh China, at least in the short term, creating better opportunities for cooperation. However, according to Kaplan, the most obvious mechanism for facilitating cooperation in the far future is through strengthening ASEAN to balance China’s military power (174). A stronger ASEAN would enhance inter-state cooperation by making it more economically sound for China to recognize the goals of its competitors. This would also help unify the aims of the ASEAN nations and increase their inner cooperation before managing agreements with China. Moreover, the level of integration of ASEAN is ascending. Its combined GDP is $1.7 trillion, which is larger than India’s, so ASEAN will likely one day balance China’s rising power militarily (Kaplan 174-175). In the future, ASEAN nations will no longer need the support of the U.S., allowing for fair and safe negotiations and better cooperation in the Spratly Islands. Such an agreement would lead to better political and economic stability between the U.S., China, and ASEAN, making it preferable to most countries. Therefore, it is most likely that the ASEAN nations will cooperate with China on their own in the long term, but for now, the U.S. might turn back and assist its allies claiming territory in the Spratlys again.




“Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.” ASEAN.

Dosch, Jorn. “The Spratly Islands Dispute: Order-Building on China’s Terms?” Harvard International Review, 18 Aug. 2011.

Fravel, M. Taylor, et al. “What Is the Future of the South China Sea?” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 12 July 2016.

Gonzales, Robin. “The Spratly Islands Dispute: International Law, Conflicting Claims, and Alternative Frameworks For Dispute Resolution.” University of Nevada, Las Vegas, May 2014.

Haw, Jim. “The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle.” Scientific American Blog Network, 4 June 2013.

Hayton, Bill. The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. Yale Univ. Press, 2014.

“ICE Case Studies: Spratly Islands Dispute.” Trade and Environment Database. American University, May 1997.

Kaplan, Robert D. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Random House USA Inc, 2015.

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