Far off the South China Sea is the contested islands of Paracel and Spratly. China used to sail around them 2,000 years ago, particularly during the Han dynasty (206-220 A.D.). China’s awareness of the islands grew, however, during the T'ang Dynasty (618-906 A.D), as it would frequent them in their navigation. Thus, China didn’t make any formal claim of sovereignty on the islands, thinking that their country is “the centre of a universal state,” anyway.
Documents of the country’s presence since the 19th century were also consistent. There were tombstones and household utensils from Emperor Tongzhi (1862-75), as well as rice, trepang and tortoise shells from traders of Hainan.
In 1876, though, the Chinese ambassador to England wrote a formal act of a sovereignty claim over the Paracel Islands. The Chinese also expelled a German survey team circling the Spratly Islands in 1883. The French government then enforced a treaty allocating almost all of the Spratly Islands to China. It is arguing today that the treaty refers to the northern part of the South China Sea only.
China has renamed the entire Spratly Islands as the Nansha Islands. Its islets are referred to as Yung Shu Jiao, Huayang Jiao, Nanxun Jiao, Duolu Jiao, Chigua Jiao, Zhubi Jiao, Dongmen Jiao, Loaita Cay, Shuangzi Jiao, and Niue Jiao after the common labels Fiery Cross Reef , Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson Reef, Subi Reef, Kerman Reef, Loaita Cay, North Danger Reefs, and Whitson Reef, respectively.
Taiwan has it simple. The Convention on the Continental Shelf, which was signed at the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1958, awarded the Diaoyutai Islands (Pinnacle Islands) to it. Also, Taiwan has maintained a base on Itu Aba (Taiping Dao Island), the biggest island in Spratly, since 1956. This gives Taiwan sovereignty over it, as well as the exploitation of the area’s resources.
Taiwan and its Kuomintang government are the true China, its people assert. So whatever island conferred to China belong to it. Taiwan also worries that ownership of the Spratly Islands of China and/or Vietnam would give the latter monopoly on the South China Sea.
The Taiwanese also calls the Spratly Islands the Nansha Islands. It claims the Zhengping Reef, Haining Reef, Zengmu, and Tungsha, which are internationally labeled as Sterra Blanca, Herald, James Shoal, and Pratas, respectively.
If there is one advantage Vietnam has from the other countries claiming the Spratly Islands, it would be its detailed history. It was still named Dai Viet when its people thrived by the Biển Đông (South China Sea). It fought the Dutch there during the 17th century, and made voyages to where no state has claimed.
The Vietnamese feudal state, therefore, discovered Hoàng Sa (Paracel Islands), which the Kergariou-Locmaria expedition (1787–1788) described as composed of two different archipelagoes 500 km apart. Their Institute of National History contains information about Hoang Sa. It is mentioned in the Đại Nam nhất thống chí (Geography of the unified Dai Nam), the official book on geography of Vietnam.
Only when the Treaty of protectorate by France and Vietnam in 1884 had the latter met opposition on who owns Hoàng Sa. The French government even sent its navy to guard Hoàng Sa, referred it as one province, and renamed it Bà Rịa.
The 1954 Geneva Agreement ruled then that the the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam (DRVN) governs the northern zone, while the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) governs the south.
Because the Terumbu Layang (Swallow Reef), Terumbu Mantanani (Mariveles Reef) and Terumbu Ubi (Ardasier Reef) lies on the continental shelf of Malaysia, the three islands are theirs.
Malaysia began claiming Spratlys in 1979. Aware that its neighboring countries are still disputing about it, Malaysia went on to publish a map on its territorial waters and continental shelf boundaries. The Commodore Reef, Amboyna Cay, Southwest Shoal, Ardasier Breaker, Gloucestere Breakers, Mariveles Reef, Barque Canada Reef, Lizzie Weber Reef, Northeast Shoal, Glasgow Shoal and North Viper Shoal are well within its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Malaysia joined the Joint Development Programme, albeit reluctantly.
Brunei used to be silent on the ownership of the Spratly Islands. It only claims a part of the South China Sea since it is along its continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It changed its mind, though, in 1984, and claimed the Louisa Reef base on the Law of the Sea.
As early as 1933, the Philippines has shown interest in the Spratly Islands. A senator had protested its annexation by the French government. The country happened to be controlled by the United States then who did not take part in the parliamentary committee that studied the issue.
Vice President Elpidio Quirino, who was also the foreign affairs secretary under the Roxas administration, reclaimed it in 1946. It is the “New Southern Islands,” laid within "vital proximity" to the country.
And so, Filipino navigator and businessman Tomas Cloma issued then a "proclamation to the whole world" that the Spratly Islands is part of Philippine territory, It also demanded Taipei’s withdrawal from Itu Aba.. Law professor Haydee Yorac regarded this as the Philippine’s first assertion of title to the area after Japan backed out in 1951 and 1952.
The Spratly Islands was renamed the Kalayaan (Freedom) Island Group in 1978. The other countries that claim it does so because ‘of history; indispensable need, effective occupation and control established in accordance with international law.’ The Philippines, however, stands ‘on legal, historical, and equitable ground.’
The Philippines became the owner of the Spratly Islands when Japan renounced its sovereignty over the islands in the San Francisco Treaty in 1951 (thus, res nullius). Furthermore, the Spratly Islands lie within the country’s archipelagic baselines (12 nm according to the1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). China and Vietnam, therefore, cannot claim the Spratly Islands.
Kalayaan is about 300 miles west of Puerto Princesa. It has one barangay—Pag-asa—with a a population of about 300, a 1.3-kilometer airstrip, a water-filtering plant, power generators, weather stations, a communication tower built by SMART Telecommunications, and its own elected mayor.