The Spratly Islands are located at the southern end of the South China Sea
, within the 200-nm exclusive economic zone
s of Vietnam
, the Philippines
, and Brunei
, and within the extended territorial claims of the People's Republic of China
. Their potential to start World War III
has only been expounded upon by techno-thriller writers (Tom Clancy
) and international relations
theorists (Samuel Huntington
). Most professional diplomats see the islands as a nuisance rather than as a legitimate danger to international security.
The total area of the Spratly Islands is less than three square miles: most of the "islands" are really nothing more than rocks or reefs. The only reason anyone cares to fight over the Spratlys is the only reason anyone cares to fight about anything these days: oil. However, the real issue is not entirely oil reserves within the Spratlys: most non-Chinese analysts believe that there isn't much oil there at all. What many overlook is that more than 8 million barrels of oil pass through the Spratlys every day, headed from the Persian Gulf to East Asia. These scattered rocks are therefore a crucial point in the energy supply for literally billions of people.
China calls them the Nansha Islands. Historically, China appears to be the first state to claim the Spratlys, way back in a Han expedition of 110 CE. Another expedition, during the Ming dynasty of the 1400's, is also in the historical record. China's claims lasted until World War II, when the Japanese Empire claimed the Spratlys and conquered their surrounding countries. In the meantime, France had claimed a large portion of the Spratlys as part of its colony of Indochina, and Vietnam kept these claims after its independence.
In 1956, a lawyer from Manila named Tomas Clomas set sail for the eastern Spratlys and claimed them for himself, calling his new state "Freedomland" and asking the Philippines to make it a protectorate. Instead of recognizing the protectorate, the Philippines decided to keep the islands, and occupied them with armed troops in 1968.
Now, on the other side of the sea, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and China was supporting North Vietnam. In 1974, China took over the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam, and claimed the lion's share of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, for itself. The following year saw the fall of Saigon, and Communist Vietnamese forces occupied several of the Spratlys that had previously been administered by the South. China ended up sending troops to seize the Vietnamese Spratlys in 1976.
Ferdinand Marcos formally claimed 57 of the islands in 1978, and later that year, Manila and Hanoi sat down for preliminary talks to sort out their conflicting claims in the area. Nothing really happened at these talks, but through the early eighties, Vietnam made several concessions to Indonesia and Malaysia to settle territorial disputes over the southern Spratlys.
Then, in 1988, China and Vietnam engaged in the first naval battle over sovereignty in the Spratlys. Seventy sailors were killed in the standoff at Johnson Reef, and several small Vietnamese ships were sunk. The cold war over the Spratlys continued for several years: in 1992, China seized 20 Vietnamese cargo ships heading to the Spratlys from Hong Kong, and in 1994, they had another standoff over a section of international waters that appeared to have a significant undersea oil reserve. A large part of this ongoing conflict was because of Vietnam's interventions in neighboring Cambodia during the late 1980's: once Vietnam got out of Cambodia, the two states' military conflict simmered down, and now their war is mostly one of words. However, the Spratlys remain highly militarized, and have seen several standoffs in recent years, mostly involving China and the Philippines' conflict over the northernmost islands.
Today, Indonesia is mediating most disputes over the Spratly Islands through ASEAN. In the meantime, virtually every rock in the Spratlys that can support soldiers does support soldiers, and five countries have scattered military outposts through the archipelago. You can see a map of these encampments at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/images/spratmap.gif and a large map of the region at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/images/schinasea.gif .