Demystifying China: Understanding China’s Maritime Territorial Claim to the Spratly Islands

Authored by: Daniel T. Murphy

The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are contested by: Brunei, the PRC, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.  The islands contain significant oil and natural gas reserves and fertile fishing grounds.  Brunei (the only country that does not occupy any of the islands), Malaysia and the Philippines claim that the Spratlys are an extension of their continental shelves.  The PRC and Taiwan base their claims on China’s historical sovereignty over the islands.

China claims that the Spratlys were discovered and mapped during the Han Dynasty, beginning in the year 2 BC. They were subsequently labeled on Chinese maps as territories of China during the Yuan Dynasty in the twelfth century, the Ming Dynasty, and the Qing Dynasty through the nineteenth Century.  China points to the archaeological record as further evidence of their claim.  Beijing maintains that it was not until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that other countries began to claim ownership of the islands while China was distracted with internal affairs.   So, for China, in the case of the Spratlys, historical sovereignty trumps any claim based on extension of the continental shelf.  Interestingly, China’s stakes its claims in the East China Sea based on the extension of its continental shelf.  For China, the continental shelf is actually “historical Chinese territory” because it contains ice age alluvial deposits from the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers.

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy 2012