Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
Bac kground on the South China Sea Disputes
The South China Sea consists of four groups of islands, two of which are in dispute, the Paracels and the Spratlys.
The Paracel Islands consist of two groups, the Crescent Group and the Amphitrite Group. Together they contain over 30 islets, sandbanks or reefs, and occupy about 15,000 square kilometres of ocean. The Paracels are located in the northern part of the South China Sea, approximately equidistant from the coastlines of Vietnam and China (Hainan). In 1974 China forcibly ejected South Vietnamese troops from the Paracels, and since then they have been occupied exclusively by China, but they are also claimed by Vietnam.
The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 islets, coral reefs, and seamounts scattered over an area of nearly 410,000 square kilometres in the central South China Sea, north of the island of Borneo, east of Vietnam, and west of the southern Philippines. The total land area of all of the islands is less than 5 square miles. The Spratly Islands are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while some islands and other features are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei has established a fishing zone that overlaps a southern reef, but it has not made any formal claim.
The Spratly Islands are not critically important for international maritime navigation. They are dangerous for shipping, and no major international shipping lanes pass through them. However, the islands could be important in safeguarding the international shipping lanes, and are often described as having strategic importance. Japan occupied all of the islands during its expansion into Asia in the 1930s and staged its invasion of the Philippines from its submarine naval base on Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys.
The islands were not regarded as very important until the 1970s, when it was agreed at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea1 (UNCLOS) to allow states to claim a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from islands. The prospect of a 200 nautical mile EEZ around the islands triggered a renewed interest in the islands because of potential gas and oil deposits and fisheries resources.
Taiwan has occupied Itu Abu, the largest island, since 1947, except during the period from 1950 to 1956 when it withdrew because of the civil war in China.