There are no indigenous people and no inhabitants of the Spratly Islands. However, the Spratly Islands represent the claim on areas of sea that contain oil, gas and rich fishing grounds. The islands prime location within busy international shipping lanes draws focus to the political sensitivity of the area.

The Claim to the Spratly Islands

Although rival countries have been quarreling over the Spratly Islands and neighboring territories for centuries, tensions are building. China’s long-term strategy to build and expand its own industries threatens the livelihood of rural populations.

Backed by geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands, the Filipino population, whose livelihood is dependent on the fishing grounds that surround the Spratly Islands, fear a violation of their sovereign rights.

Intimidated by China’s goliath presence and associated economic, military and global influence, the Philippines sought international arbitration in regard to the U.N. Convention on the Laws of the Sea in 2013.

In July 2016, the Philippines case was backed by the tribunal and their claims supported. China was found guilty of violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights, a ruling that China found to be illogical and unsubstantiated.

Why is the U.S. invested?

Bound by a mutual defense treaty ratified in 1951, the U.S. and Philippines preserve a historic relationship. “Sharing a common bond of sympathy, mutual ideals and regional security, the treaty stated that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the Pacific area.”

Former U.S. ambassador Max Baucus warns that if the U.S. strategy toward China is not strong, careful and considered, China will continue to build its economic force to the “detriment of other countries.”

In addition, if the U.S. turns a blind eye to political power plays and poverty in the Spratly Islands’ neighboring countries due to protectionist island ideals, the U.S. runs the risk of yielding crucial global space to China. This is an ocean space in which $1.2 trillion worth of U.S. traded goods passes through annually.

China’s right to the Spratly Islands

At odds with the Philippines’ shared rights to the Spratly Islands is China’s nine-dash line. Spreading hundreds of miles south and east of its border, China claims territory and sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, including its surrounding ocean areas.

China argues that the Spratly Islands lies within Chinese territory that can be identified in maps issued in 1947. According to the map, both island groups in the South China Sea are marked within China’s territory. The aforementioned maps contain no coordinates and claim all of the territorial water within the line.

How can the Spratly Islands reduce poverty?

According to the international poverty line, 18.4 million Philippines live in extreme poverty; their livelihood is dependent on the fishing grounds surrounding the Spratly Islands. Keeping sea territory in the hands of the Philippines is crucial to the families who rely on the income and produce of Filipino fishermen.

Furthermore, estimates made by Chinese analysts suggest poverty in the Spratly Islands will become a past notion due to its rich resources. With extensive research and extrapolation of the mineral wealth that surrounds the Spratly Islands, oil deposits and gas fuel increase debates over ownership.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates there are 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Spratly Island region.

Considering the economic climate of the Philippines, the rights to oil and natural gas resources in the Spratly Islands and the surrounding ocean area could drastically change the lives of millions of people. Poverty in the Spratly Islands and its neighboring nations remains a looming presence. The poorest provinces in the Philippines are in short supply of water sources, electricity and toilet facilities.

If the majority of wealth from these resources goes to the Filipino people, national capital will increase, new industries will be created and mass poverty could be eliminated. The economic infrastructure will also provide education, nutrition and healthcare.

For China the driving reason behind ownership of the Spratly Islands is territorial. Developing hydrocarbon resources in the South China Sea allows the Chinese ownership of regions and is of huge strategic value in the delineation of maritime boundaries.

For the Philippines, the U.S. and other associated nations, there is far more at stake.

Emma Royce

Photo: Flickr