Some of the island claims overlap and have led to international tensions over the right to claim some of the world's largest oil reserves and expand their territorial fishing rights. Powerful nations in the area that have a growing need for energy pose a serious threat for future disputes, but recent agreements have eased the tensions to a degree and offer some hope of a model of economic cooperation. .
Claims to the islands in the archipelago largely rest on the claimant's ability to establish a historical record of being there first, their geographical proximity, or a record of diplomatic agreements. China, Japan, France, and Vietnam all made claims to, and inhabited, the islands sporadically before and during the first half of the 20th century. China's claim to the islands dates back 2nd century BC Han dynasty, and in 1933 the Chinese made a formal public declaration of claim to the islands and stated that the islands "are inhabited only by Chinese fishermen, and are internationally recognized as Chinese territories".1 The Japanese used the Spratly Islands as a staging point for their assault on the Philippines during World War II, but the action drew little attention from the British who considered the islands terra nullius, a non-legally binding concept that argues uninhabited islands are open to settlement.2 Vietnam's claims date back to the 17th century and are bolstered by an 1884 treaty that claims the French administered the islands while they were a protectorate of France.3 Vietnam has recently contended that they have continuously occupied the islands since the 1600s and have "exercised effectively, continuously and peacefully its sovereignty" over the Spratly islands as well as the neighbouring Paracel Islands.4 Historians have largely disputed the legitimacy of the claims made by Vietnam and since World War II the islands have become the centre of an international debate involving China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Since World War II the Spratly Islands have gained significant strategic importance for their location amid a rapidly developing area, as well as for the economic value of their natural resources. Ownership of the islands gives the owner internationally recognized fishing rights in an area that is rich in fish and seafood. The discovery of some of the richest gas and oilfields in the world has sparked an intense competition for ownership. The islands lie in the middle of several nations that have a growing need for oil that is mostly currently imported from the Middle East and Africa. In addition, the islands lie in the middle of the shipping lanes that include the Strait of Malacca, which serves the expanding Asia-Pacific economic region, and is the second busiest sea-lane in the world5. It is estimated that over half the world's supertanker traffic and "half of the world's merchant fleet (by tonnage) sails through the South China Sea every year".6 This gives the owners of the islands geo-political strength as well as control of the resources in the area surrounding the islands. The island's strategic location and the ability to disrupt trade have given the Spratly Islands an increased military importance in light of the world's growing need for oil.
The most recent decades have seen open hostilities as nations have worked to build a spirit of