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Chinese Victory At Sea
by James Dunnigan
October 22, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

In 1974, China fought a naval battle with the Vietnamese near the Paracel islands, and took control. China has recently been expanding military facilities on these tiny islands. Among the more notable additions has been an expanded electronic monitoring facility, and a lengthened runway, now long enough to support Su-30 fighters. Several large fuel tanks have also been built, indicating an intention to base Su-30 fighters there. About a thousand military personnel are stationed there.

Taiwan recently built a 1,150 meter long, and 30 meter wide air strip on Itu Aba, one of the Spratly Islands, 500 kilometers to the south. The Spratlys are a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land, but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Called Taiping Island by the Taiwanese, Ita Aba is one of the largest of Spratly Islands, at about 120 acres (489,600 square meters). It has been in Taiwanese hands since the mid-1950s, and has largely been used as a way station for fishermen. The island is also claimed by the Vietnamese, who call it Thai Binh. Taiwan has long maintained a small military presence on the island, and the new air strip is meant to cement that control. Protests were made by Vietnam, which controls the largest group of islands, and the Philippines, which also claims Itu Aba island. The Vietnamese earlier refurbished an old South Vietnamese airstrip on Big Spratly Island.

In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a naval battle, off the Spratly islands. The Chinese victory was followed by Chinese troops establishing garrisons on some of the islands. In 1992, Chinese marines landed on Da Lac reef, in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, Chinese marines occupied Mischief Reef, which was claimed by the Philippines.

The next war in this part of the world may break out because of a dispute over an uninhabited island in Southeast Asia. Border disputes have long been a cause for wars. All it takes is a country that feels it is losing out because a border is not where everyone agrees is should be. Same thing with islands. There are dozens of these island disputes worldwide. Most are not active issues, except for the fact that an international treaty (the 1982 Law of the Sea) gives whoever owns these uninhabited rocks rights to fishing, and oil drilling, for over three hundred kilometers from each of these tiny bits of land.

Thus, aside from prestige and possible historical ties, the primary reasons folks are claiming ownership of these uninhabited bits of land has to do with the ability to control sea lanes, defining maritime economic zones, possible tourist dollars in some instance, and oil, rumored to underlie much of the area. The principal islands involved (and the nations claiming ownership) are;

  • Padra Branca Islands, claimed by Malaysia & Singapore.
  • Sipadam & Ligatan Islands, claimed by Malaysia & Indonesia -- this is one that seems most likely to cause trouble in the near term.
  • Louisa Reef, claimed by Malaysia & Brunei.
  • Spratly Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, & Brunei: China claims them all, but occupies only 8, Vietnam has occupied or marked 25, the Philippines 8, Malaysia 6, and Taiwan one.
  • Paracel Islands, claimed by China, which occupies them, Taiwan, & Vietnam contest Chinese claims.
  • Sabah, claimed by Philippines & Malaysia. This is a province of Malaysia, which the Filipinos claim was ceded to the Sultan of Sulu (now part of the Philippines) back in the 1870s.

In some of these there have also been periodic clashes over who maintains aids to navigation. All of the nations making claims in this area understand that it is the U.S. Navy that still has the final say over who controls what. Someday China may contest that, and the new facilities in the Paracels are part of that.

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