There may be no more tensely disputed scraps of land than the archipelago of the Spratly Islands. The around 750 tiny islands and reefs that curl across the South China Sea are claimed by six countries: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
One of the Spratly Islands occupied by Vietnam (photograph by Do Kien Trung)
Among the islands, there’s only about four square kilometers of land. So why have so many countries been battling over the Spratly Islands since the beginning of the 20th century? It’s all about what hides beneath the water, which holds one of the area’s richest fishing grounds, and also the promise of incredible natural resources. According to a Chinese estimate, there could be 213 billion barrels worth of petroleum at the islands (although other estimates cut this down significantly, while remaining a high reserve), and the potential wealth from natural gas might be even greater.
Fish at a Spratly Islands reef (photograph by Matthew Lee)
The clashes between the countries have sometimes grown aggressive and violent, particularly between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, with each wanting to claim whole ownership (Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia only have claims on parts). China states they have a 2,000-year history there, but Vietnam maintains that China only started that claim in the 1940s and that their own country in fact has history there going back to the 17th century, while the Philippines has a geographical proximity over the other two countries. China even included the Spratly Islands in a map on new Chinese passports, which Vietnam in return has refused to stamp. Even just this week, there’s mounting tension over Hong Kong activists taking a fishing trip to the islands.
Meanwhile, the islands remain almost entirely uninhabited aside from military outposts. However, Layang Layang, which Malaysia controls, does have scuba diving open to visitors, the only place where people can appreciate the fishes without their actions potentially escalating into a territorial war.
SPRATLY ISLANDS, SOUTH CHINA SEA
Curious Facts of the Week: Helping you build your cocktail party conversation repertoire with a new strange fact every week, and an amazing place to explore its story. See all the Curious Facts here>