Last week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III called for the peaceful sharing of resources of the resource-rich Spratly Islands during the 17th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi.
Six Asian countries claim the Spratly Islands—China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei—and disputes among them over the past three decades have led to numerous minor military skirmishes, the detention of fishermen and diplomatic rows.
So why is the Spratly issue so important, and what is the basis of the Philippine claim to the islands?
The answer to the first question is simple—the region is believed to contain large deposits of oil, gas, hydrocarbon and mineral resources. In addition, the 26 islands islets and seven groups of rocks are also strategically located in commercial sea lanes in the South China Sea and cover a maritime area of 160,000 square kilometres.
The Spratlys are popular with fishermen but are considered dangerous for commercial navigation, with maps from the early part of the last century advising seamen to avoid passing through them altogether if possible.
And on the Philippines claim? In 1933, a Philippine senator protested the French annexation of the Spratlys, but the US government (which controlled the Philippines at that time), didn’t take any real interest in the matter.
In 1946 ,Vice President Elpidio Quirino claimed the Spratlys on behalf of the Philippine government and a year later, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs declared that the ‘New Southern Islands’ previously occupied by Japan during World War II were part of Philippine territory.
A decade later, the Philippine military reported that the Spratly island group was of ‘vital proximity’ to the country, while the following year, Filipino navigator and businessman Tomas Cloma issued a ‘proclamation to the whole world’ claiming ownership and occupation of the Spratlys. Cloma sent six letters to the government about the need to settle the question of ownership of the islands.
The vice president of the Philippines replied in 1957, assuring Cloma that the government did ‘not regard with indifference the economic exploitation and settlement of these uninhabited and unoccupied islands by Philippine nationals.’ According to Filipino law professor Haydee Yorac, the Cloma Proclamation was the first assertion of title to the Spratlys after Japan renounced its ownership of the islands in 1951 and 1952.
In 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos issued a proclamation declaring ownership of most of the islands in the Spratlys. The area was renamed the Kalayaan (Freedom) Island Group.
Militarization of the Spratlys started in the 1970s when the Philippines sent a military contingent to occupy some of the islands in 1971; within four years, the Philippines had established a military presence on six islands.
Today, the Philippines occupies eight islands in the area, but the prospects look dim for international bodies like the International Court of Justice, International Tribunal on the Law and the UN Charter to resolve the overall issues of ownership.
Clearly, a military solution should be avoided as it would not just threaten regional stability, but could also have global repercussions if other countries became involved. The best approach therefore should be the forging of bilateral and multilateral agreements among claimants.
With luck, Aquino's proposal to peacefully settle the Spratly Islands dispute will help lead to more concrete dialogue between those countries concerned and greater progress among governments in the region.