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Island Vulnerability

Spratly Islands
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Island Vulnerability explores the challenges which isolated geographies face when dealing with risk and disasters by examining the processes which create, maintain, and could be used to reduce their vulnerability. This page provides information on vulnerability issues in the Spratly Islands:

Environmental Diplomacy

Background commentary from 2002:

On 1 March 2002 for UNESCO's Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum Miguel Fortes wrote an insightful message about The Spratlys as a zone of peace: the transboundary biosphere reserve concept at work. After starting out with a useful background to the Spratly Islands and possible resolutions to the conflict, including examples of other international treaties governing certain territories, he then wrote:

A Transboundary Biosphere Reserve is proposed as an approach to reduce the tension over the Spratlys. As borders between the states are political and not ecological, ecosystems often cross boundaries and may be subject to different, even conflicting, management and use practices. The features of a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve include: favoring cooperation and joint management; creating a regional management body mandated to protect and manage the common resources; recognizing the effort at the international level; and instituting the political will for claimants to cooperate and commit in order to meet the common regional need.

Transboundary Biosphere Reserves provide a tool for a common resource management regime....In the region, cooperation appears to be more easily achieved in relation to joint exploitation of shared natural resources than in cases of disputed offshore territory. The policy implications of the above proposal should thus assign optimum importance to economic and other benefits resulting from cooperation.

Since each claimant country’s position is weak under International Law, a shared management approach based on the Spratlys as a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve is proposed here. Other alternatives are risky, costly, and impractical.

Three responses to these remarks were included in a message on 6 June 2002 The Spratly Islands: an opportunity for environmental diplomacy?. Victor Prescott challenged some assertions made by Miguel Fortes but did not explicitly oppose the suggestion of a transboundary biosphere reserve. His analysis was that "If this matter is settled peacefully in the foreseeable future, it will be by political cooperation; there is no obvious reason why any country should try to settle the matter by force. The Spratlys are invariably listed among the world’s ‘flash-points’, but the justification seems more theoretical than real."

Ilan Kelman, while writing about the idea in Kelman (2003), put forward the idea of using the transboundary biosphere reserve for "environmental diplomacy":

The idea behind ‘Environmental Diplomacy’ is not simply to resolve the existing dispute, but to use such resolutions and any mechanisms created to spill over into other areas of bilateral and multilateral relations. For example, could a successful Transboundary Biosphere Reserve set up by the five states mentioned provide an opportunity to bring in Taiwan, which also has interests in the Spratlys? Could this opportunity yield results for the Paracel Islands or Senkaku Islands issues, or move forward the maritime boundary agreement between China and Viet Nam? is questionable whether...a separation between international geopolitics and environmental management would be feasible for the Spratlys.

The question should be raised whether successes in environmental management could yield further successes in international peace? Should environmental management be deliberately used as a tool to achieve peace, or should it try to remain as apolitical and neutral as possible and be content with the local successes, which achieve plenty in their own right?

Some of the text on environment diplomacy from Kelman (2003) is:

Disaster has segued into development which operates in parallel with environmental management. The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), for example, brings together all interested parties in a forum uninfluenced by conflicts external to the system. Argentina and the U.K. sat in ATS meetings and negotiated during the Falklands War in 1982. North Korea, despite its reclusiveness, joined as an Acceding State (non-voting member) on 21 January 1987, although has participated minimally so far.

Have positive diplomatic results occurred outside the ATS area, which covers south of 60°S? If so, the lessons of this 'Environmental Diplomacy' need to be understood in order to apply them to other and future environmental and development treaties. If not, as with disaster, could international environmental management regimes contribute more to the international community than they currently do?

Outer space and the deep sea are two other regions with strong possibilities for international cooperation leading to diplomatic results, or to a war of mass destruction, on Earth's surface. The obvious difference is that environmental management regimes are generally welcomed, irrespective of spin-offs, whereas disaster events, unless used as weapons, are normally undesired even though benefits are sought from the destruction. Global climate change is an intriguing issue due to its mix of disaster, development, environmental management and international politics in a morass of social and environmental change at space scales from local to global.

Finally, Gerardo Budowski noted that the University for Peace in Costa Rica is working on ideas peace parks. This idea has been implemented in Africa through the Peace Parks Foundation

Commentary by Nadine McCarthy on 3 October 2004:

Challenges and consequences of small island "environmental diplomacy": The Spratly Islands

The uninhabited Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are presently claimed by many of its surrounding coastal nations. Tension between the countries involved has in the past led to clashes over ownership of the islands. With the dispute yet to be legally resolved, it has been proposed that the Spratly Islands be used as an international biosphere reserve in a form of 'environmental diplomacy'. This option, ecologically ideal and a viable solution, is unlikely to be implemented by the governments involved if uncertainty regarding the accessibility and economic value of oil reserves are not clarified.

The Spratly Islands are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei too threw its hat in the ring, by claiming a fishing zone that extends to incorporate one of the Spratly Islands. To some, tension caused by the dispute is largely theoretical while others believe the nations are ready and willing to defend and attack the islands with force. The situation is currently stable. As of November 2002, claimants signed the 'Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea' which eased tensions, but falls short of a legally binding code of conduct. Forty-five islands are currently occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. None of the land is arable and thus there are no indigenous inhabitants of the Spratly Islands.

The reasons for the dispute can loosely be divided into three categories. First, from a navigational point of view, ownership of the Spratly Islands and its surrounding waters has importance as a sea lane through the South China Sea. Second, the sea bed is thought to be of economic importance since it may contain both oil and gas although the accessibility and size of reserves are uncertain. Third, the Spratly Islands are important for security reasons, and in a period of war could be of strategic significance in sea-lane defence, interdiction as well as surveillance.

In any attempt to resolve this dispute, the most significant factor involved in the fight for the Spratly Islands must be identified. My view is that the countries claiming the Spratly Islands are most interested in its economic potential, based on its purportedly extensive oil and natural gas reserves. Its political geography seems to be less important as claimant countries are all coastal nations with well established sea-lanes relatively close to their coasts. With regards to security, if these countries wished to attack or defend themselves from other nations, they would be best placed to do so from the mainland.

Are the Spratly Islands' oil reserves overstated? It is difficult to estimate the size and value of reserves. In 1974, China and South Vietnam fought a naval battle over the islands after the Saigon [Ilan Kelman asks "Was this battle politically an extension of the Vietnam War or relevant to only the Spratlys?"] government allowed Western oil companies to explore the area. As a result of tension and the ongoing dispute, the region remains largely unexplored with no reliable estimate of potential reserves, despite some studies suggesting that a substantial amount of accessible oil is present. Vastly differing estimates occur due to the deep water and challenging geology of the ocean floor, which make both surveying and extraction of oil difficult. In order to make a sensible decision on the fate of the Spratly Islands, the accessibility and size of oil reserves must be established. Its economic potential must be accurately determined in order to compare commercial exploitation against alternative uses of the region.

An alternative to commercial exploitation of the islands is formation of an international biosphere reserve. The formation of such a reserve is unlikely to be approved by the governments involved unless oil and natural gas reserves are deemed to be inaccessible or insufficient to make drilling economically feasible. Only certain conditions would permit the creation of a multinational reserve as a plausible alternative, not just an ideological dream. If formed, the international biosphere could serve as a forum to improve diplomatic relations between the countries involved. Such a concept is based on the principle of 'Benefits of the Commons' and should involve the creation of a regional management body mandated to protect and manage common resources.

An example of such a multinational park created with diplomatic intentions is the Peace Park in South Africa. The trans-frontier park was established to serve as a permanent link between protected areas of adjacent countries. The concept gained popularity in the 1980s and was approved and implemented by the three main countries involved: South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This policy has been a success, because the foundation of the reserve led to increased economic prosperity in the area. Eco-hotels and eco-tours employ local people while training schools have been set up to teach the skills needed to work in the industry. The governments involved had the tourism industry in mind when they set up the trans-frontier park. Eco-tourism was starting to take off at the time and politicians viewed tourism as the one industry with the potential to create the jobs desperately needed in rural areas.

In comparison, the conditions and history behind the Spratly Islands does not appear to be conducive to setting up such a 'peace park'. Any tourist initiative in the Spratly Islands is likely to be prohibitively expensive, as the islands lack infrastructure, residents and basic resources. The main benefit of such a set-up would be environmental, and this should be emphasized over the possible political benefit in stabilising the region. As a group of islands, the Spratly Islands are likely to have many unique species. Furthermore, without any indigenous inhabitants, the ecosystem is one of the few areas left in the world largely untouched by humanity. Both these benefits are powerful reasons that support the formation of a nature reserve. The setting up of the Spratly Islands as an international biosphere reserve is, from an ecological point of view, a powerful tool. If formed, it is likely to ease tension in the area and its maintenance will force neighbouring countries to work together. However, at present, the governments involved are unlikely to accept such an alternative for the islands.

Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, China and Taiwan are all developing nations. All face increasing fuel demands, and even for those which have oil and natural gas reserves within their territories, demand far outstrips production. As this gulf increases and as China in particular fails to meet demand growth with domestic energy sources, they will be forced to explore alternative energy sources. For China, one of the biggest fuel users in the world, the relatively untapped South China Sea and the Spratly Islands remain a possible source of vast amounts of oil. Historically, high and volatile oil prices exacerbate the demand for new and local sources of oil. If the Spratly Islands do indeed sit on large reserves of oil and natural gas, none of the nations involved would agree to the foundation of such a nature reserve. Additionally, an international biosphere reserve is unlikely to generate much income from tourism. Governments looking to improve their economy, particularly after the recent set-backs suffered by the region, would not consider the option of a nature reserve if large amounts of oil were present. The true economic feasibility of commercial oil extraction must be determined for the future of the Spratly Islands to be resolved. For this purpose, I propose a neutral body be mandated to carry out such a survey, with the formation of a peace park as a viable alternative if oil reserves turn out to be uneconomical.

The main challenge to setting up the Spratly Islands as an international biosphere reserve lies in persuading the governments involved to prioritise environmental conservation before any economic benefit they may gain from the ownership of the Spratly Islands. This is unlikely to occur if the countries hold on to the belief that the South China Sea remains an untapped resource for oil and natural gas. Therefore, the formation of a reserve is dependent on oil and natural gas reserves being economically unfeasible to extract. Only then would alternatives be considered.


Some Resources

Austin, G. 2003. "Unwanted Entanglement: The Philippines’ Spratly Policy as a Case Study in Conflict Enhancement?", Security Dialogue, vol. 34, no. 1 (March), pp. 41-54.

Budowski, G., I. Kelman, and V. Prescott. 2002. "The Spratly Islands: an opportunity for environmental diplomacy?". Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum, 6 June 2002.

denoon, D.B.H. and S.J. Brams. 1997. "Fair Division: A New Approach to the Spratly Islands Controversy". International Negotiation, vol. 2, no. 2 (1 February), pp. 303-329.

Elferink, A.G.O. 2001. "The Islands in the South China Sea: How Does Their Presence Limit the Extent of the High Seas and the Area and the Maritime Zones of the Mainland Coasts?" Ocean Development and International Law, vol. 32, no. 2 (1 April), pp. 169-190.

Fortes, M. 2002. "The Spratlys as a zone of peace: the transboundary biosphere reserve concept at work". Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum, 6 June 2002.

Gjetnes, M. 2001. "The Spratlys: Are They Rocks or Islands?" Ocean Development and International Law, vol. 32, no. 2 (1 April), pp. 191-204.

Hearns, G.S. and W.G. Stormont. 1996. "Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea". Marine Policy, vol. 20, no. 2 (March), pp. 177-181.

ICE Case Studies. 1997. "Spratly Islands Dispute". Trade and Environment Database, Case 21, May 1997.

Keyuan, Z. 1999. "The Chinese Traditional Maritime Boundary Line in the South China Sea and Its Legal Consequences for the Resolution of the Dispute over the Spratly Islands". The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, vol. 14, no. 1 (1 March), pp. 27-55.

Kuan-Ming, S. 1996. "Freeze the tropical seas - An ice-cool prescription for the burning Spratly issues!". Marine Policy, vol. 20, no. 3 (May), pp. 199-208.

Sellin, T. 1997. "The precautionary principle and prevention of crises: the case of the Spratly". Natures Sciences Societés vol. 5, no. 4 (12 October), pp. 43-46.

Sharpe, S. 2003. "An ASEAN way to security cooperation in Southeast Asia?" The Pacific Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (June), pp. 231-250.

Wang, H.H. 1997. "The perplexing dispute over oil". Resources Policy, vol. 23, no. 4 (December), pp. 173-178.

Wang, K-H. 2001. "Bridge over troubled waters: fisheries cooperation as a resolution to the South China Sea conflicts". The Pacific Review, vol. 14, no. 4 (1 December), pp. 531-551.

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