Spratly Islands

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A cay in the Spratly group. Source: NASA
June 1, 2015, 3:45 pm
Source: CIA World factbook

The Spratly Islands consist of more than 150 small islands or reefs scattered over a sea area of nearly 360,000 square kilometres in the South China Sea, about two-thirds of the way from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines. The closest countries to the Spratly Islands are Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.


Abundant in marine biodiversity, the Spratly Islands lie in rich fishing grounds and potential gas and oil deposits. (SeeEnergy profile of South China Sea)

These islands are strategically located near several primary strategic shipping lanes in the central South China Sea.

There are no indigenous inhabitants. But there are scattered garrisons occupied by military personnel of several claimant states, notably the Philippines.

They are claimed in their entirety by Taiwan, Vietnam and China, while portions are claimed by Malaysiaand the Philippines.

About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Since 1985 Brunei has claimed a continental shelf that overlaps a southern reef but has not made any formal claim to the reef. Brunei claims an exclusive economic zone over this area.

Claimants in November 2002 signed the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," which has eased tensions but falls short of a legally binding "code of conduct"; in March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands.

Detailed description

There are at least 150 named islands and reefs within the Spratlys, the majority of these being reefs, sandbanks, atolls or submerged rocks. Some of the submerged reefs are up to forty kilometres long.

The largest island in the Spratly Group is known as Taiping Island or Itu Aba, a roughly elliptically shaped landform about 1289 metres long and 369 metres in width; this island has been under control of Taiwan since the year 1956. The closest sovereign mainland to Taiping Island is Palawan in the Philippines, at a distance of 220 nautical miles.

The next seven largest islands and their controlling nations are:Northwest Cay (Philippines), Southwest Cay (Vietnam), Grierson Cay (Vietnam),Swallow Reef (Malaysia). Mainland China controls several reefs and emergent landforms, including Mischief Reef.

Economic activity

Economic activity is limited to commercial fishing. The proximity to nearby oil- and gas-producing sedimentary basins suggests the potential for oil and gas deposits, but the region is largely unexplored. There are no reliable estimates of potential reserves. Commercial exploitation has yet to be developed.


The Spratly Islands are situated in Southeastern Asia, consisting of a group of low-lying reefs and islands in the South China Sea, approximately two-thirds of the way from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines.

Geology and topography

The Spratly Islands are scattered between 11°28’ to 4° N and 109°55’ to 117°50’ E. While land formations are numerous within this region, the majority of these are rocks, reefs, sandbanks, or other types of partially submerged landforms. In addition to the three major island groups, there are a moderate number of small scattered near-coastal islands off of Northern Borneo and southern China.

The total original land area of the Spratlys is less than five square kilometres; however, recent landfilling and reef destruction activities by China have added about five square kilometres. The island groupincludes about 100 islets, coral reefs, and seamounts, scattered over a sea area of nearly 410,000 sq km of the central South China Sea

Terrain is generally flat and low lying. The highest elevational point is an unnamed location on Southwest Cay (4 metres).


The climate of the Spratly Islands is classified as tropical. There is a dry season of about seven months, with a complementary five month rainy season. Mean annual precipitation typically ranges from 1800 to 2200 millimetres. From May to August, the high air temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius; in the balance of the year the mean temperature approximates 25 degrees C. Southeast monsoon winds occur from March to April, and then in May shift to soutwest pattern enduring until November.

Natural resources

Chief natural resources of the Spratly Islands are fish, guano, and undetermined oil and natural gas potential.


View from Amboyna Cay. Source: Ha Petit

Important ecological resources are found in biological diversity of the extensive reef ecosystems. Marine waters in the vicinity of Taiping Island alone contain at least 399 reef fish species from 49 families, 190 coral taxa within 69 genera representing 25 discrete families; at least 99 mollusk species have been recorded. At Taiping Island 91 invertebrate species from 72 genera, 27 crustacean species taxa, fourteen polychaete species, four echinoderm species, and 109 terrestrial vascular plant species have been observed. There were also 59 bird species observed, which indicates that Taiping Island is a major stop for migratory birds in East Asia.

Some specific bird taxa seen at Taiping Island are Streaked shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas), Brown booby (Sula leucogaster), Red-footed booby (S. sula), Great crested tern (Sterna bergii), and White tern (Gygis alba).

The Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
nesting on the Spratly Islands; however, their populations have gradually declined.

Example polychaete taxa include Haplosyllides aberrans

Land reclamation

A massive land reclamation activity commenced in 2014 and continues in escalating proportions as of late May, 2014. This activity has been conducted by the Chinese government in opposition to international law and over objections from numerous countries, including the Philipines, Japan, Vietnam and the USA. Over 2000 acres of land has been created by filling above prior reefs, destroying significant quantities of natural reef habitat. A military airfield has been created above Fiery Reef. China has recently released a position paper declaring it intends to project its military power beyond its coastal waters, and intends to use the Spratly Islands as part of this military expansion in the region.

See also

Spratly and Paracel Islands. Source: NASA World Wind


  • Blanche, J. B. and J. D. Blanche, 1997, An Overview of the Hydrocarbon Potential of the Spratly Islands Archipelago and its Implications for Regional Development. in A. J. Fraser, S. J. Matthews, and R. W. Murphy, eds., pp. 293-310, Petroleum Geology of South East Asia. Special Pub no. 126, The Geological Society, Bath, England 436 pp.
  • Chemillier-Gendreau, Monique. 2000. Sovereignty Over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Kluwer Law International. ISBN 9041113819 (Spratly Islands).
  • Dzurek, Daniel J. and Clive H.Schofield. (1996) The Spratly Islands dispute: who's on first?. IBRU. ISBN 978-1-897643-23-5
  • Hutchison, C. S., and V. R. Vijayan, 2010, What are the Spratly Islands? Journal of Asian Earth Science. vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 371–385.
  • S. Jilan. 2004. Overview of the South China Sea Circulation and Its influence on the CoastalPhysical Oceanography Outside the Pearl River Estuary, Continental Shelf Research 24:1745–1760; J. Gan, H. Li, E. N. Curchitser, and D. B. Haidvogel, “Modeling South China Sea Circulation: Response to Seasonal Forcing Regimes”, Journal of Geophysical Research 3 (2006)
  • John W. McManus and Kwang-Tsao Hsao. 2015. Toward Establishing a Spratly Islands International Marine Peace Park: Ecological Importance and Supportive Collaborative Activities with an Emphas on the Role of Taiwan.Ocean Development & International Law, 41:270–280, 2010. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
  • Owen, N. A. and C. H. Schofield, 2012, Disputed South China Sea hydrocarbons in perspective. Marine Policy. vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 809-822.
  • Jane Perlez. 2012. "Vietnam Law on Contested Islands Draws China’s Ire". The New York Times. June, 2012
  • Matthew Rosenberg. 2015. China deployed artillery on disputed island, U.S. says. New York Times. May 29, 2015


Agency, C., & Hogan, C. (2015). Spratly Islands. Retrieved from http://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/Spratly_Islands