Peace and Conflict Monitor

The management of the Spratly Islands conflict: Success or failure?
Sopheada Phy
June 02, 2009

      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 passed everyday 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 and search for appropriate solutions to the Spratly Islands conflict is important for at least two reasons: ensuring both regional and international security and peace, and promoting regional cooperation. The incipient and latent conflict root is believed to originally date back to the 1930s; however, in this paper, the scope of analysis will be solely limited to the period 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 oil was first discovered in the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are invaluable resource in terms of not only oil, gas, seafood and natural resources, but also as a 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, most 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 could 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. Thus, throughout the paper the conflict origins and dynamics will be first scrutinized, 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, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei respectively. About 45 islands are occupied by a 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 dating 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 make a 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[1].

Oil, other natural resources and the strategic location of the Spratlys create a territorial demand from 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, however, might be perceived differently, are viewed as realistic with the territorial claim. Issues of the Spratlys conflict could be considered as a conflict of interest[2]. 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[3]. With these interests, they compete with one another to acquire the 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 hegemony in the region when it occupies the whole Spratly archipelago. Besides, each claimant has a negative attitude toward each other regarding the territorial sovereignty over the Spratlys because of individual economic and security interests. With this understanding it can be seen that the 5 countries outside of China claim the islands not only for their own benefit, but also to prohibit China from turning the South China Sea into a ‘Chinese Lake’, which would be unilaterally controlled by a 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 the realpolitik approach. This is undoubtedly a response 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, 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 a non-violent approach to deal with conflict. For example, Vietnamese nationalists 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 the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 and the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979, and being aware that China has a strong military power, with which Vietnam can hardly contend, a 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 that make the conflict so intractable. The first reason is the acknowledgement of unmeet needs of each warring party, as all the claimants demand the Spratlys to predominantly fulfill their economic needs. By applying the theories of basic human needs, the need for oil, gas, fisheries, and other natural resources become important for feeding the people of each claimant country and creating economic growth. Relative deprivation theory also plays a role in the realistic claims of all disputants since only after the UNCLOS was launched in 1982 could they use this convention to emphasize their claims. The so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)[4] made the conflict intractably escalated. Taking advantage of 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 claim to the entire Spratlys, while the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have been using the 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 stand for their claims realistic. Being aware that the conflict has been protracted and tension exists, some efforts to manage the conflict have been conducted.

The management of Spratly Islands conflict: An analysis

In order to ease such the dispute over the Spratly Islands, some regional efforts have been implemented. The method of preventive diplomacy was employed by Indonesia in preventing possible violent conflict to be occurr between the claimants after the naval clash between China and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands in 1988. By doing that, from 1990 to 1999, ten informal workshops initiated by Indonesia were held (Wiryono, 2008) using track two diplomacy, which as Mayer (2004) claimed, is used by the mediator to solve international conflict, to get the claimants into negotiation for future prevention of the Spratlys conflict. The workshops seemd to be a good start but turned out to be fruitless because they were drawn into the conflict for two main reasons — the claims over the Spratlys of both Vietnam and Malaysia informed in the workshops overlapped with Indonesia’s seabed boundaries, and the rejection of China regarding the proposed multilateral negotiations alongside its claim for the whole South China Sea, including the Natuna Islands, which overlapped with the Indonesia’s claim. With this, Indonesia withdrew as a mediator to set up a military post in the Natuna Islands to keep them from being seized by China (Stinnett, 2000).

      In July 1994, as a result of the two track diplomacy meetings initiated by Indonesia, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was created. This forum was meant to serve as a form of one track diplomacy meetings with the objectives of fostering dialogue and consultation on political and security issues, and promoting confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region[5]. ARF sought to address three points — promotion of confidence building measures, development of preventive diplomacy, and elaboration of approaches to conflicts. Unfortunately it failed to prevent the conflict in the region because from the birth of ARF in 1994 till 2002, violent conflicts still erupted between the disputants, particular China and Vietnam, China and the Philippines, and the Philippines and Vietnam[6].

      The two track Indonesian workshops and one track ARF meetings sought to strengthen the common positions concerning the South China Sea.  They attempted to foster the protection of the environment and fisheries of the South China Sea, the proposition of join development regarding the resources, and the prevention of piracy in the area (Stinnett, 2000). Thus, the goals of both the Indonesian workshops and ARF have nothing to do with seeking a solution for the Spratlys dispute. However, they at least created an interest for reaching a common ground because in November 2002 the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has eased tensions but falls short of being a legally binding code of conduct, was signed between ASEAN and China after three years of hard bargaining (Chin, 2003). In the declaration the respect for, and the commitment to, the freedom of navigation in and flight above the disputed area of the South China Sea was endorsed by ASEAN and China on the basis of the universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)[7]. Also, the undertaking of cooperative activities was encouraged, as stated in the declaration, in order to deescalate the sovereignty claiming dispute and prevent potential conflict. In September 2004, for instance, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands (Robles, 2006, October 30). The code of conduct was ultimately just agreeing on some rules of the game between the claimants, as it does not address the sovereignty issues.

All the above conflict management efforts seem a good sign for peaceful solution in the Spratlys, but they tend to be useless since there is a strong reluctance from China. Even though China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which seems like a positive signal indicating it’s willingness to approach the dispute multilaterally, to internationalize the conflict management with multilateral solution, their preference is actually a bilateral solution. This is due to the fact that multilateral conflict management would decrease China’s advantageous position in any bilateral negotiation with the other, weaker regional actors (Swanstrom, 1997). The other claimants in the region prefer multilateral negotiations with China to lessen China’s superiority. It is clearly concluded by China at the 1991-Bandung Conference in Indonesia that it does not support any conflict negotiation process in the region multilaterally (Swanstrom, 1999). Moreover, Beijing’s legislature recently ratified a plan to include Spratlys as a new administrative district of Hainan province (Peter, 2007, December 18), which signifies that China intends not to seek a solution with other claimants. The other concern is that Taiwan is not a signatory of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which might affect the multilateral solutions expected to take place. The Spratlys dispute still exists even with the aforementioned efforts, although the 2002-declaration, which to some degree helped decrease potential flare-ups in the dispute, has nothing to do with the resolution of conflict due to the realist approaches of all the claimants, particularly China, in dealing with such transnational conflict. Why thus, have all the claimants been realistically claiming ownership of the Spratly Islands?

It is believed that the economic benefits and strategic location of the Spratlys have been the core and common reason for the claims of all the claimant countries. Should one party gain exclusive control over the area, that state would achieve total control over the economic development and the trade routes in the region, and moreover give the occupant military advantages in waging war against all other nations in the region. In terms of economic benefits, as China is the second largest economy in the world following the United States, and in order to feed its own booming population and sustain its economic growth, the economic extracting from the Spratlys is deemed significant. If China could control the Spratlys, fisheries, oil exploration, and other natural resource extraction would aid China in reaching its goals. In terms of strategic benefits, gaining control of the Spratly Islands could help China maximize its own sea territory to include the whole South China Sea, with which some scholars argued that China would be able to turn the South China Sea into a ‘Chinese Lake’ (Rowan, 2005; Hyer, 1995; Lo, 1989; Samuels, 1982). By acquiring the South China Sea, China’s power would become stronger than it has been now.

In the case of Vietnam, Catley and Keliat (1997) stated that:


The logic of its position suggests it will since Vietnam possesses a distinctive location in the South China Sea. Its entire coastline is adjacent to it and no other claimants have such as strong yet vulnerable strategic position. In fact, it is very much dependent on the sea route in the South China Sea. If the entire Spratlys were seized by others, Vietnam’s territorial security would be jeopardized and its economic interests damaged (p. 57).


This clearly points out that acquiring the Spratlys is a must for Vietnam in terms of both economic and strategic territory benefits. Significantly, the promulgation of Doi Moi Vietnam’s economic liberalization in 1986 (Leifer, 2001) forced Vietnam to think about its future economic growth, particularly in terms of oil and gas as prior to 1988, Vietnam was an oil-imported country; hence, acquiring the Spratlys is a must for Vietnam to produce its own oil and gas in order to sustain and increase its economy.

Moreover, Taiwan’s claim to the Spratlys is due in large part to oil and gas demands as Taiwan is an energy-imported country. Strategic location is deemed important for Taiwan since the fear of China becoming dominant in the South China Sea might affect Taiwan trade route through the South China Sea since China has never freed Taiwan from its territory according to the “One China Policy”. Oil is considered to be important for the Philippines’ economy because it is also the oil-imported country like Vietnam and Taiwan. The Philippines has a weak military, so gaining control over the strategic location of Spratlys is compulsory due to the fear of attack from the surrounding countries. For Malaysia, which wants to be an industrialized country exporting more petroleum and liquefied natural gas, the fear of attack from the surrounding countries is the basis for their claim in the Spratlys. For Brunei, fisheries and strategic location are more important for sustained economic growth than oil or gas because Brunei already exports oil and gas.  

Although economic and strategic location interests make all the disputants have realistic claim for the archipelago, the recent development of economic and political ties between ASEAN and China during the past decade and the principles in the 2002 declaration indicate that it is not likely that any of the parties will attempt to resolve the disputes by threat or the use of force. The time may now be ripe for all the claimants to agree to shelve the sovereignty claims in the Spratly Islands and find a way out of such a prolonged conflict.

Conclusion—Lessons learned and recommendations

The management efforts of the Spratly Islands conflict, to some extent, failed due to the realist ideas of all the claimants concerning their claims. Although all the claimants believe they have a realistic claim on the Spratly Islands, the unwillingness of China in multilateral negotiations is another key factor for this failure. Also, thirs party mediation is not possible as learned from the experience of Indonesia acting as mediator in resolving the conflict because a mediator cannot be neutral if his/her interest is involved in the negotiation. Since each claimant continues to stake a claim on the islands the interest/rights/power model or dispute resolution stairway is suggested. However, in order to rightly apply this model into the Spratlys conflict, only two steps of stairway, interest-based and rights-based solutions, are taken into account. To put it in other words, two appropriate solutions are proposed for the Spratlys conflict. The first is the interest-based solution or institutional approach—join development project— which employs constructivist theory, and is achieved through negotiation among the parties themselves. The second is the rights-based solution, or alternative dispute resolution approach—arbitration—conducted by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) through UNCLOS.

Concerning the joint development project, the division and sharing of resource development would be primarily based, and the win/win solution would be achieved. This anticipated solution would face a challenge since so far, as previously mentioned, China has refused to multilaterally negotiate with other claimants regarding the Spratlys or even the South China Sea dispute as a whole, and has also not relinquished its claim of sovereignty over the entire Spratlys. Besides, some claimants, if not all, have been reluctant to cooperate because they fear that by so doing they will be renouncing their claim, recognizing the legitimacy of another’s claim, or assisting another’s claim. Oil is probably the most vital factor making the dispute more difficult to resolve. If the islands are purely for strategic location interests, every nation could share in part of the islands assuring a safe passage route through the South China Sea. Yet, since the Spratlys conflict is a conflict of interest and as Burton (1990) stated, it is negotiable, so before meaningful discussion can take place on the establishing of joint development zones, its perhaps necessary to first negotiate a formal treaty that freezes the existing claims of all the disputants. The proposed treaty should also contain a clause that will enable Taiwan to unilaterally affirm that it supports and will abide by it. If all the claimants strictly adhere to the principles of the 2002-declaration and the to-be-created treaty, and the aforementioned are viable, further clashes can be prevented, and a way out from this protracted dispute can be achieved.

Arbitration of the ICJ is another solution, with which the dispute should be jointly submitted to the ICJ by all the claimants. Arbitration provided by the ICJ is the second option to seek a solution for the Spratlys conflict as all the claimant countries are the signatories of UNCLOS. The verdict of the ICJ would be binding if the claimants agreed to submit the dispute to ICJ for arbitration; thus, if the submission of the dispute would be done by the claimants, they would be forced to accept the decision, and each might lose part of its own claim since the verdict of the ICJ is a zero-sum outcome. This solution might be viable if all the claimants could mutually agree with the verdict of the ICJ.

[1] See the list of military clashes in the South China Sea since 1970 at , retrieved October 2, 2008.

[2] 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.

[3] 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. 

[4] UNCLOS was signed and ratified by all the claimants in 1994 (Stinnett, 2000). For details of UNCLOS, find at , retrieved October 2, 2008.

[5] Visit ASEAN Regional Forum official website for details at , retrieved October 2, 2008

[6] See the details of clashes between the claimants in the South China Sea from 1974 up to 2002 at , retrieved October 2, 2008

[7] See the details of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea at the ASEAN official website at , retrieved October 2, 2008


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Sopheada Phy is a Master's degree candidate at the University for Peace.