The Management of the Spratly Islands Conflict:
Success or Failure?
The Spratly Islands are situated in the South China Sea, one of the largest continental shelves in the world, which is abundant in resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and seafood. It is the seaway everyday passed by many ships trading across the region and continent. Conflict in the South China Sea really affects both regional and international stability. Thus, the study of and seeking appropriate solutions for the Spratly Islands conflict are important at least for two reasons—ensuring both regional and international security and peace, and promoting regional cooperation. The incipient and latent conflict root is believed to be originally dated back to the 1930s; however, in this paper, the scope of analysis will be solely limited from 1969 up to present. 1969 was chosen as the starting point for analysis because it is the year that the manifest conflict started to erupt as the oil was first discovered in the Spratly Islands. Spratlys are invaluable resource in terms of not only oil, gas, seafood and natural resources, but also strategic location that all the claimants have been trying to achieve. So far, some efforts of preventing conflict have been tried, but the conflict still exists due to realistic interests of all the claimants, significantly China. Today, all parties have a vested interest in a peaceful resolution of the dispute; however the prospects for resolution seem low, while the potential for conflict remains and can grow.
It would be of prime interest to see how the conflict prevention in the Spratly Islands has been conducted and what conclusions we can draw from the experience of this specific dispute. Since there is no one-fit-all formula to analyze a particular conflict case, the mixture of conflict analytical frameworks or theories suggested by Sandole (2008), Galtung (1996), Mitchell (1981), and Wehr (1979) will be taken into account in analyzing the Spratly Islands conflict. This paper argues that the conflict management and intervention efforts implemented so far in the Spratly Islands to some extent failed due to the realist perspectives of all the claimants, particularly China, regarding their claims. Throughout the paper, thus, the conflict origins and dynamics will be first scrutinized, and then the efforts of conflict management and intervention will be analyzed, while the lessons learned and recommendations will be proposed to end the article.
Origins and Dynamics of Conflict
The South China Sea conflict to a large degree erupted due to the Spratly Islands. They are entirety and partially claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei respectively. About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Claims to various islands of the Spratlys began in the 1930s when France first occupied the archipelago. During World War II, Japan displaced France and controlled the region by using it as a submarine base. After the war, both France and Japan relinquished the islands. Though China and Taiwan based their claims to the Spratlys on the historical records dated back to the Sung Dynasty (A.D 960), it was not until 1946 that Taiwan took possession of the Itu Aba island—the largest Spratly island, and 1951 that China claimed the Spratlys. In 1968, the Philippines occupied 3 islands, while in 1973; South Vietnam possessed 5 islands, which were disregarded by China in 1974. In 1978, the Philippines claimed more isles and named them “Freedomland” or “Kalayaan”. It was not until 1979 that Malaysia first started to claim for the islands. More significantly, in 1988, the hot tension occurred when China and Vietnam became military engaged over Johnson reef in the Spratlys. In 1995, moreover, the skirmish between China and the Philippines happened over the Mischief Reef.
Spratly Islands is an incompatible goal that all the six claimants—China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei claim as their territories. Spratly Islands is the source of conflict because of its oil abundance and other natural resources, and strategic location. Oil, other natural resources and strategic location of the Spratlys cause the territorial demand of the six claimants, and ultimately cause the conflict. Oil was first discovered in the Spratlys in 1969 (Stinnett, 2000), and it was not until after the oil crisis in the early 1970s that the Spratlys became essential to all the claimants. The issues of conflict though might be perceived differently, are viewed as realistic with the territorial claim. Issues of the Spratlys conflict could be considered as conflict of interest. All the claimants have disagreed about the distribution of the Spratlys which all of them value highly. Economic and strategic location benefits to be gained from independently controlling the Spratlys make all the claimants base their claims on historical and/or legal testimonies. With these interests, they compete with one another to acquire such scarce and incompatible Spratlys.
Because of these interests, moreover, the attitudes of the conflicting parties, except China, fall under common ground in which they are afraid of China, whose objective, as Hyer (1995) argues, is to turn the South China Sea into a so-called Chinese Lake, to become a hegemon in the region when it occupies the whole Spratly archipelago. Besides, each claimant turns negative attitude toward each other regarding the territorial sovereignty over the Spratlys because of individual own economic and security interest. With this reason, all the five claimants on the one hand, claim the islands for their own benefits, and on the other hand, prohibit China’s goal from replacing South China Sea to Chinese Lake, which would be unilaterally controlled by hegemonic China. These attitudes lead to the behavior of the claimants.
In order to understand the disputants’ behavior, two approaches, realpolitik and idealpolitik, suggested by Sandole (2008), are taken into account. For achieving their own goals, each claimant acts either violently or non-violently, but mostly tend to use realpolitik approach. This is undoubtedly responded to the argument of Chin (2003) that “The political will demonstrated by each claimant in this dispute has not changed even though leadership in China, Taiwan and the Philippines changed in the last few years” (p. 82). In terms of violent behavior of the claimants, in 1988, for example, when the violent clash between Chinese and Vietnamese troops on the disputed islands occurred, 74 Vietnamese were missing, and seven were killed. Subsequently, the clashes between China and the Philippines erupted in 1995 over the Mischief Reef. In 2002, the shots were fired by the Vietnamese troops to warn the Philippine reconnaissance aircraft when it flew over the disputed zone (Chin, 2003). Some disputants, in contrast, likely tend to use non-violence approach to deal with conflict. For example, Vietnamese nationalists recently have continually held a demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh (Peter, 2007, December 18). Learning from the past experience that China conquered Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and the Sino- Vietnam War in 1979, and being aware that China has a strong military power, which Vietnam hardly contend, non-violent approach has always been used by Vietnam against China’s claims over the Spratlys.
The conflict is protracted and intractable due to realistic sovereignty claims of the above six claimants over the Spraltys. There are some reasons causing the conflict so intractable. The first reason is the acknowledgement of unmeet need of each warring party, as all the claimants demand the Spratlys to predominantly fulfill their economic needs. By applying the theories of human basic needs, the need for oil, gas, fisheries, and other natural resources are important for feeding the people of each claimant country and improving economic growth. Relative deprivation theory also plays a role in the realistic claims of all disputants since only after was the UNCLOS lunched in 1982 that they could take advantage from this convention to relatively underpin their claims. The so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) made the conflict intractably escalated. Taking advantage from UNCLOS, it is noticeable that the disputants establish a permanent position regarding the islands to be able to expand their EEZ and add territorial water from those islands. China, Vietnam and Taiwan have been laying their claims to the entire Spratlys, while the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have been using EEZ to reinforce their claims. Furthermore, Part VI on Continental Shelf of UNCLOS further justifies the claims of the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei based on proximity, which make the three countries
 See the list of military clashes in the South China Sea since 1970 at http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/South China Sea/pdf.pdf, retrieved October 2, 2008
 Wehr (1979) classifies issues of conflict into four categories—facts-based issue, values-based issue, interests-based issue, and non-realistic issue, while Mitchell (1981) divided types of conflict situation into four categories—value, interest, attribution, and means.
 As the analyzing of each claimant’s claims is out of the scope of this paper, it is not taken into consideration. For those wishing to understand more about individual claim, the Masters thesis written by Stinnett (2000) is recommended.
 UNCLOS was signed and ratified by all the claimants in 1994 (Stinnett, 2000). For details of UNCLOS, find at http://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention agreements/convention overview convention.htm, retrieved October 2, 2008.