Sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands
16 Chapter I
The other two (Pratas Island and Macclesfield Bank) are not the subject
of any dispute over sovereignty.
The archipelagos sprawl over a sea bounded by many territories. China,
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines form a crown around it.
These lands have little in the way of a continental shelf. The exceptions
are China, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, especially south-west Vietnam.
The Paracels and Spratlys, however, lie well beyond the geological
continental shelf, in the middle of a maritime zone which reaches a depth of
over 1,000 metres close to the Paracels and around 3,000 metres north-east
of the Spratlys.
From the legal standpoint, such facts are important, since no neigh-
bouring State is able to claim rights over the archipelagos on the grounds
that they belong, in geomorphological terms, to the continental shelf of any
particular country. The islands and islets do not emerge from a zone of deep
ocean floor which may be considered to be the natural prolongation of the
land territory of a particular State. This argument, as will be seen in the
following chapters, is however immaterial, since sovereignty over an island
formation is independent of the links between that formation and the subsoil
of the sea.
A few facts will underline the islands' geopolitical or geostrategic
importance, which stems from the major role played by this maritime zone in
To the south-west, the South China Sea connects with the Indian Ocean
via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, to the north-east it meets the East
China Sea, which in turn connects with the Sea of Japan via the Strait of
No global maritime power can afford to ignore this sea. A glance at the
map reveals that all maritime traffic traversing this sea is obliged to pass
between the two archipelagos. The importance of sovereignty and con-
sequently strategic control over these groups of islands therefore needs no
Lastly, the islands are uninhabited. Their small size has never allowed
any human development. Traditionally they have served as outposts for
seasonal fishermen. That aside, they have harboured only garrisons or, very
recently in the Paracels, a population of administrative origin, part of the
enormous drive to develop an infrastructure.