by Britanny Cheng

What has more than 750 reefs and islands, has been claimed by 5 different countries, and has been the center of political disputes since the 1900s? Answer: the Spratly Islands, located off the coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. This region has been claimed by both of these nations as well as China, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. Despite the political dilemma synonymous with them, the general American public is mostly unaware that these islands exist.

What can the Spratly Islands have to offer? Combined, they barely have 4 square kilometers of land spread out in over 450,000 square kilometers of sea. This makes the construction of infrastructure almost impossible, making the islands uninhabitable. Yet countries around the Pacific have been constantly claiming islands, disputing their opponents’ claims, and using military intimidation for the past 20 years. This is due to the islands’ rich marine ecosystem, gas and oil deposits, and ideal location for military strategies. Fortunately, there has been no drastic large-scale military clash between these five countries as of yet. However, there have been smaller incidents where two countries have clashed and used military force to assert their possession over specific islands. For example, the 1988 altercation at Johnson Reef between the Chinese Navy and Vietnamese Navy (Torode 2013) resulted in the deaths of 64 Vietnamese soldiers that sparked protests in Hanoi as well as in Vietnamese communities in the United States.

In 2002, China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that aimed “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned” (ASEAN 2002). This has created a tense stalemate that can change at any time. Tensions increased when the Sulu Sultanate from the Philippines attacked North Borneo in early March 2013. North Borneo is part of Sabah, a member state of Malaysia that has claimed the Spratly Islands.

There are several historical, political and economic reasons behind these countries’ territorial claims over the Spratly Islands. Ideally, the Spratly Islands should go to the country that is most equipped and most qualified to sustainably develop the islands’ resources and protect their diverse marine ecosystems; however, that is no small feat and none of the five countries involved in this territorial dispute are known for their green technology. Some have called for military intervention by the United States. Smaller countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have been fighting China’s military intimidation for the past 20 years (Lohman 2009). China’s historical claim to the islands is weak; however, its strong military intimidation has kept it a key player in the Spratly Islands dispute.

Some argue that the Philippines should take sovereignty over Spratly Islands because it has had the most success and experience with maintaining marine ecosystems, plus the islands are well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippines has almost 10% of the world’s marine protected areas (MPAs), which were created in response to the country’s rampant cyanide and dynamite fishing in the 1970s and 1980s (Yan 2012). No one can pass through, fish or dive in MPAs except to conduct scientific research. With more than 500 MPA sites within Philippine waters, the government as well as the military is highly experienced in dealing with marine ecosystems and management. Furthermore, the MPAs have shown signs of great success in conservation.

However, the Philippines is not a perfect country. Despite its success, there are still lingering problems within Philippine politics that should be solved in order to effectively address the dispute over the Spartly Islands. The 1951 United States-Philippine Mutual Peace Treaty implies a role for the United States in addressing this territorial dispute and supporting the Philippines, but so far the United States has remained fairly aloof. Yet the Philippines is the strongest ally of the United States among all the countries vying for the islands. It would be advantageous for the United States to support the Philippines’ claim over the Spratly Islands because the United States can benefit from the resources from the rich ecosystem and the strategic location of the islands. Unfortunately, the United States has refused to take sides on the matter. The United States Department of State released a press statement stating that they are closely monitoring the issue but will not take a position on the matter (Ventrell 2012). This almost ignores the Philippines involvement in the dispute and shows that despite the Philippines’ history of cooperation with the United States, they are doing nothing to support their strongest Southeast Asian allies.

Without United States support, the Philippines is reluctant to make aggressive claims over the Spratly Islands in fear of military retaliation from China. Sadly, the situation is not getting any better as the United States has been showing reluctance in helping the Philippines in environmental matters. Instead of advocating for more United States support, the Philippines has kept relatively subdued about the issue. A controversial journalist from the Manila Bulletin writes, “The Philippines is a weak republic that, like a church mouse, occasionally roars like a lion, and settles down like a lapdog” (Villanueva 2013).

Many Filipino politicians, including Villanueva, have pointed out the lack of United States reciprocity with the Philippines. An example of this is the recent crashing of a United States warship on one of the Philippine’s most treasured coral reefs. Tubbataha Reef is an MPA as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO 1993). The USS Guardian, a minesweeper, ran off course and crashed into the site, causing more than 4000 square meters of damage (Lendon 2013). The Philippine government decided to forego fining the United States Navy and simply asked for $100,000 in compensation.

This is not just an environmental issue, but also a political issue in which the “United States disregards Filipino sensitivity and treats Philippine sovereignty with impunity” (Villanueva 2013). The reef is an MPA and is protected by an international treaty that prohibits the entry of armed ships into Philippines waters, so why did the USS Guardian crash into the reef despite warnings from park officials? If this is a shining example of the Philippines control over their marine ecosystems as well as their handling of United States cooperation then something is amiss.

If the Philippines hopes to gain control over the Spratly Islands, they are likely going to need the firm public support of the United States. Ideally, the United States would act as a mediator between its strongest Southeast Asian ally and its rival, China. The United States should proactively organize talks between all the countries claiming the islands and urge for a peaceful resolution to the dispute, as military intervention will cause more damage to the reefs surrounding the islands. However, the Philippines should not stand for subjugation from the United States, but rather implore the United States to recognize the Philippines as an important ally and reciprocate with adequate support for the Philippines claims.

Works Cited:

  1. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (2002) Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Retrieved from
  2. Lendon, Brad (2013) US Navy warship will have to be lifted off Philippine reef from CNN. Retrieved from
  3. Lohman, Walter (2009) Spratly Islands: The Challenge to U.S. Leadership in the South China Sea from The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from
  4. Torode, Greg (2013) Spratly Islands dispute degines China-Vietnam relations 25 years after naval crash from South China Morning Post. Retrieved from
  5. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (1993) Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park from UNESCO’s official website. Retrieved from
  6. Ventrell, Patrick (2012) Press Release: South China Sea from the US Department of State.
  7. Villanueva, Hector (2013) Weak Republic from the Manila Bulletin. Retrieved from
  8. Yan, Gregg (2012) How the Philippines is saving their coral reefs – And how it is good for fishermen, tourism and communities from Wildlife Extra. Retrieved from

Author Bio: Britanny Cheng is an incoming senior at the University of Southern California where she is pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies. She attributes her love for the environment to her upbringing in the Philippines that is near to the ocean and many beautiful beaches. This inspired her to become a certified advanced water diver. In the future, she plans on hopefully research diving for a living whilst increasing awareness for the implementation of marine reserves in the Philippine waters. This is her second time participating in one of USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passport programs.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Images: top, bottom

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins

A New Faculty Member on the Team

An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact

Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich

Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity

The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island

Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences

Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do

Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor

Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?

The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?