While the world’s attention has been focused on Russia’s Crimean land grab, the Chinese have taken the opportunity to further an ongoing land grab of their own in the South China Sea's Spratly Islands. Not that there's much land to grab.
The Spratlys comprise more than 750 islands — the number varies depending on whether it's high or low tide — that amount, in total, to less than two square miles of land scattered across 164,000 square miles of ocean. But it's not the land that's important, it's what's underneath and around it: some of the world's best fisheries, hugely valuable shipping lanes, and, far below, vast reserves of oil and gas. The more conservative estimates value the entire Spratly Islands group, including surrounding ocean and seabed, at something north of a few zillion dollars.
According to a 1982 United Nations Convention, countries "own" waters up to 12 nautical miles from their coasts, they control all resources another 200 nautical miles out, and continental shelf rights often extend beyond that. Based on those rules, being able to legally lay claim to even the tiniest of Spratly islands would grant a country rights to use a huge chunk of ocean and ocean floor. Therefore, everyone who happens to have a country even remotely near the Spratlys has come up with ways to claim as much as they can.
Thing is, the islands are so tiny and remote that they can’t support any actual people. Pirates and fishermen have been known to set up temporary camps, but nothing even vaguely approaching permanent settlement is possible. So there's no one living on the islands other than scattered bunches of military folks stationed there to make the shoals and reefs look populated. This all makes it tough for countries to make the case that the islands they've claimed are legitimate national territories.
Which brings us to Second Thomas Shoal, a.k.a. Ayungin reef to Filipinos, a.k.a. Ren'ai reef to the Chinese, a.k.a. This Godforsaken Hellhole to the poor souls stationed out there by the Philippines and China. The shoal is a chunk of the Spratlys to which both the Philippines and China lay claim. It is currently occupied by Philippine Marines, who live on an old ship scuttled on the shallow reef in 1999 in order to convert it into a makeshift outpost. And it's no Carnival Cruise ship — the BRP Sierra Madre was a landing transport ship built by the US in 1944 and then given to South Vietnam in 1970; it was transferred to the Philippines in 1976 after South Vietnam ceased to be a going concern.
Since 1999, the Philippine government has been sending unlucky Marines to occupy that ship in order to cement the country's claim to those islands. Kind of like what the Russians have done in Crimea, only the Philippine Marines have been orders of magnitude more relaxed about the whole thing. Also, instead of Ukrainians everywhere, there are sharks.
China has been getting a bit pushy all throughout East Asia as of late, punking the US Navy, extending air defense zones, and otherwise throwing a lot of sharp elbows and getting people agitated. A couple days ago, China blocked Philippine resupply ships headed to the Second Thomas Shoal, claiming that the ships were carrying construction supplies and that the Filipinos were out to build a real outpost and settle in more permanently.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry, “It is known to all that China has sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands and their surrounding waters, including the Ren'ai Reef. A Philippine ship illegally 'grounded' on China's Ren'ai Reef in 1999, with the excuse of 'malfunction.' Since then, China has been demanding the Philippines to tow away the ship. However, the Philippine side refuses to go under the pretext of 'technical reasons.' It now attempts to carry out construction work on the Ren'ai Reef.”
The Philippines, meanwhile, are telling anyone who will listen that China is being an aggressive jerk and trying to bogart all the Spratlys. Since a confrontation last year, the outpost has been resupplied by civilian ships instead of military to defuse tensions and keep a lower profile. Fortunately, the Philippine government was able to arrange an air drop of food and water to the marines, so they're not in imminent danger. But it isn't clear whether or not future resupply shipments will be intercepted by the Chinese.
Meanwhile, diplomats and legal scholars are silently wondering if the rise of sea levels due to global warming will drown the low-lying Spratlys altogether, thereby providing an equitable solution in which all party’s claims to the islands are respected equally.
Photo by NASA-Johnson Space Center
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