The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially by gas and oil deposits. They are claimed in their entirety by the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Brunei has established a fishing zone that overlaps a southern reef but has not made any formal claim. The Islands are located in the Southeastern Asian group of reefs and islands in the South China Sea, about two-thirds of the way from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines.
The majority owner of the islands are the Philippines, occupying bigger islands base their claims on the discovery of the islands by a Filipino Citizen, Tomas Cloma who found the island of Kalayaan and turned it over to the Philippine Government. Thitu, the second largest island, has a 1 km airstrip built by the air force and a telecommunications tower built by Smart Telecommunications. Philippine Navy boats and Air Force planes make daily and weekly trips on the island.
Taiwan occupies the biggest island, Itu Aba, where a Taiwanese Coast Guard detachment is currently in place. The government decided to build an airstrip in 2005, and despite Vietnam’s protest they pushed through and was completed in December 2007. A C130 Plane was the first aircraft that ever landed on the airstrip, on January 21, 2008. Recently, the Taiwanese President made a visit to the Spratlys. The governments of the Philippines and Vietnam protested the visit, saying it was meant to pressure their governments.
China doesn’t occupy any island, but controls several reefs. Chinese fishermen also fish near island borders, which often causes trouble. A Philippine Navy ship once shot down a Chinese fishing boat, killing several fishermen. The Navy also arrests fishermen caught catching endangered fish species. In the early ’90s an American cargo plane was shot down by a Chinese fighter plane after it allegedly flew over one of China’s islands. Accident or not, China proved to its neighbors that it would use force in reinforcing their sovereignity.
Until now, the disputes over the islands have remained unsolved and a United Nations tribunal has been investigating over this issue. Will this issue be solved peacefully, or will warfare settle it? Whatever it may be, we still don’t know who owns the Spratlys Islands.