Chinese maps of China always show a looped extension of the southern borders reaching 1500km down through the South China Sea to within spitting distance of Borneo, enclosing a host of reefs and minute islands. These sit over what might be major oil and gas reserves, and are consequently claimed by every nation in the region – China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have all put in their bids, based on historical or geographic associations.
Occupied by Japan during the 1940s but unclaimed after World War II, the Spratly and Paracel islands are perhaps the most contentious groups. Vietnam and China both declared ownership of the Paracels in the 1970s, and 70 Vietnamese soldiers were killed when the Chinese seized the islands in 1974, coming to blows again in 1988 when the Chinese navy sank two Vietnamese gunboats. Then, in 1995, the Philippines stepped in, destroying Chinese territorial markers erected over the most westerly reefs in the Spratly group and capturing a nearby Chinese trawler. Ongoing minor brawls encouraged the nations of the region – including China – to hammer out a landmark agreement in November 2002, which basically allows access for all, while territorial disputes are settled one by one. However, neither China nor Vietnam has kept to the letter of the agreement, and indeed in July of the same year, China established Sansha City on the Paracels to oversee its territory in the South China Sea.
In 2012, the International Court of Justice ruling on the “Nicaragua v Colombia” case (about islands in the Caribbean) cast doubt on whether many of the tiny South China Sea Islands would generate an Exclusive Economic Zone around them under international law. This greatly reduces their economic significance, but not their use as a focus of nationalistic fervour – a difficult issue where China and Japan are concerned.