Although the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea cover barely 5 square kilometers of dry land, they are a focus of international boundary disputes due to their strategic location. China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all lay claim to all or part of the archipelago; Brunei claims fishing rights to part of the area, as well.

The Spratly Islands (Nansha qundao in Chinese) include about one hundred reefs and islets totaling less than 5 square kilometers spread over 410,000 square kilometers in the South China Sea (Nanhai). Today these tiny specks of land are important as symbols of national pride, as military outposts astride vital shipping lanes, as fishing grounds, and as sources of oil or natural gas. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have made claims to all or part of this archipelago. Brunei also claims a fishing zone that overlaps the southern portion of the Spratlys.

Chinese texts dating from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) appear to describe the islands, and Chinese would later claim that sovereignty was established by a Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) naval expedition. Certainly for centuries Chinese traders and fishermen were aware of the Spratlys (probably named for nineteenth-century British captain Richard Spratly). The PRC emphasizes that Qing dynasty (1644–1912) maps include the Spratlys as part of the empire.

Claims to sovereignty were bolstered when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government accepted the Japanese surrender in the South China Sea, including both the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands (Xisha qundao), in late 1945. While Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were Cold War adversaries, both sought to burnish their nationalist credentials by making strong territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as in islands at the southern edge of the Ryukyu Islands.

China’s adamancy and presence in the Spratlys have been a function of its growing military power and economic needs. In the 1960s and 1970s China and the Philippines announced the discovery of oil around the Spratly Islands, thus adding urgency to contending claims. The Chinese navy began regular patrols in the area in the mid-1980s. In 1988 Beijing highlighted the Spratlys’ ties to China when the island of Hainan was promoted to full-fledged provincial status (the PRC considers the Spratly Islands to be part of the new province, which was split off from Guangdong Province in 1988). That year marked the last serious military conflict concerning the islands, a clash between China and Vietnam during which seventy Vietnamese sailors lost their lives. This followed close to a decade after the PRC’s invasion of Vietnam in February of 1979 (which China says was in response to attacks by Vietnam), during which China claimed to have captured several cities and counties before announcing a withdrawal on 5 March. The Chinese gradually increased their presence in the South China Sea through small military outposts and markers.

Tensions grew in the 1990s with the increase of oil and gas exploration among the islands. In particular, China and Vietnam granted overlapping drilling rights and began to cooperate with foreign oil firms. One focus of regional concern has been a Chinese military installation on Mischief Reef on the eastern edge of the Spratlys. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in 2000 reiterating China’s historical claims in the context of modern international law.

Over the past half decade the PRC has taken a more cooperative approach as part of its overall diplomatic strategy toward Southeast Asia. The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and China in 2002, called for mutual consultation and confidence-building measures by all parties to the dispute. Further, the PRC has begun to cooperate on oil exploration ventures with Southeast Asian nations. The dispute over the islands has become a test case of a rising China’s claims of peaceful intentions in the region.

Further Reading

Dzurek, D. J. (1996). The Spratly Islands dispute: Who’s on first? Durham, U.K.: University of Durham, International Boundary Research Unit.

Foreign Ministry, People’s Republic of China. (17 November 2000). Historical evidence to support China’s sovereignty over Nansha Islands. Retrieved from

Odgaard, L. (2002). Maritime security between China and Southeast Asia: Conflict and cooperation in the making of regional order. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.

Womack, B. (2006). China and Vietnam: The politics of asymmetry. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Perseverance can reduce an iron rod to a sewing needle.


Tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn

Source: Phillips, Steven. (2009). Spratly Islands Dispute. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2091–2092. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Spratly Islands Dispute (Nánshāqúndǎo zhēngduān南沙群岛争端)|Nánshāqúndǎo zhēngduān南沙群岛争端 (Spratly Islands Dispute)

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