Photos of Spratly Islands

Introduction

Background

The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds - and potentially by gas and oil deposits. They are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and 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.

Visit the Definitions and Notes page to view a description of each topic.

Geography

Location

Southeastern Asia, group of reefs and islands in the South China Sea, about two-thirds of the way from southern Vietnam to the southern Philippines

Geographic coordinates

8 38 N, 111 55 E

Map references

Southeast Asia

Area

total: 5 sq km less than

land: 5 sq km less than

water: 0 sq km

note: includes 100 or so islets, coral reefs, and sea mounts scattered over an area of nearly 410,000 sq km (158,000 sq mi) of the central South China Sea

country comparison to the world: 250

Area - comparative

land area is about seven times the size of the National Mall in Washington, DC

Land boundaries

total: 0 km

Coastline

926 km

Climate

tropical

Terrain

small, flat islands, islets, cays, and reefs

Elevation

lowest point: South China Sea 0 m

highest point: unnamed location on Southwest Cay 6 m

Natural resources

fish, guano, undetermined oil and natural gas potential

Land use

other: 100% (2018 est.)

Natural hazards

typhoons; numerous reefs and shoals pose a serious maritime hazard

Environment - current issues

China's use of dredged sand and coral to build artificial islands harms reef systems; illegal fishing practices indiscriminately harvest endangered species, including sea turtles and giant clams

Geography - note

strategically located near several primary shipping lanes in the central South China Sea; includes numerous small islands, atolls, shoals, and coral reefs

People and Society

Population

no indigenous inhabitants (July 2021 est.)

note: there are scattered garrisons occupied by military personnel of several claimant states

country comparison to the world: 105

Death rate

5.97 deaths/1,000 population (2021 est.)

country comparison to the world: 163

Net migration rate

0 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2021 est.)

country comparison to the world: 96

Infant mortality rate

total: 40.33 deaths/1,000 live births

male: 45.32 deaths/1,000 live births

female: 35.09 deaths/1,000 live births (2021 est.)

country comparison to the world: 40

Life expectancy at birth

total population: 69.86 years

male: 67.37 years

female: 72.48 years (2021 est.)

country comparison to the world: 179

Government

Country name

conventional long form: none

conventional short form: Spratly Islands

etymology: named after a British whaling captain Richard SPRATLY, who sighted Spratly Island in 1843; the name of the island eventually passed to the entire archipelago

Economy

Economic overview

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

Transportation

Airports - with paved runways

total: 6 (2020)

2,438 to 3,047 m: 3

914 to 1,523 m: 2

under 914 m: 1

Airports - with unpaved runways

total: 2 (2020)

914 to 1,523 m: 2

Heliports

5 (2020)

Ports and terminals

none; offshore anchorage only

Military and Security

Military - note

Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs of which about 45 are claimed and occupied by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam

China: assessed to have 7 outposts (Fiery Cross, Mischief, Subi, Cuarteron, Gavin, Hughes, and Johnson reefs); the outposts on Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi include air bases with helipads and dozens of fighter jet hangers, naval port facilities, surveillance radars, air defense sites, anti-ship cruise missiles, and other military infrastructure such as communications, barracks, maintenance facilities, and ammunition and fuel bunkers

Malaysia:  assessed to have 5 outposts in the southern portion of the archipelago, closest to the Malaysian state of Sabah (Ardasier Reef, Eric Reef, Mariveles Reef, Shallow Reef, and Investigator Shoal); all the outposts have helicopter landing pads, while Shallow Reef also has an airstrip

Philippines: assessed to occupy 9 features (Commodore Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, Flat Island, Loaita Cay, Loaita Island, Nanshan Island, Northeast Cay, Thitu Island, and West York Island); Thitu Island has the only Philippine airstrip in the Spratlys

Taiwan: maintains an outpost with an airstrip on Itu Aba Island

Vietnam: assessed to occupy about 49 outposts spread across 27 features, including facilities on 21 rocks and reefs in the Spratlys, plus 14 platforms known as “economic, scientific, and technological service stations,” or Dịch vụ-Khoa (DK1), on six underwater banks to the southeast that Vietnam does not consider part of the disputed island chain, although China and Taiwan disagree; Spratly Islands outposts are on Alison Reef, Amboyna Cay, Barque Canada Reef, Central Reef, Collins Reef, Cornwallis South Reef, Discovery Great Reef, East Reef, Grierson Reef, Ladd Reef, Landsdowne Reef, Namyit Island, Pearson Reef, Petley Reef, Sand Cay, Sin Cowe Island, South Reef, Southwest Cay, Spratly Island, Tennent Reef, West Reef; Spratly Island includes an airstrip with aircraft hangers; the six underwater banks with outposts include Vanguard, Rifleman, Prince of Wales, Prince Consort, Grainger, and Alexandra

(2020)

Transnational Issues

Disputes - international

all of the Spratly Islands are claimed by China (including Taiwan) and Vietnam; parts of them are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines; despite no public territorial claim to Louisa Reef, Brunei implicitly lays claim by including it within the natural prolongation of its continental shelf and basis for a seabed median with Vietnam; 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