|The Spratly Islands: hotly contested, and far from me|
I’m somewhere in the Atlantic at this point, bobbling contentedly along (if we judged the weather right). While I’m out there, let me shift your attention to an entirely different sea. The body of water south of China, east of Vietnam and and west of the Philippines is known by nearly as many names as there are countries surrounding it. It’s a confusion of nomenclature which reflects a variety of conflicting geopolitical perspectives. To the ‘western’ world this has long been known as the South China Sea and to call it the West Philippine Sea or the East Sea reveals as much about the one naming as the thing being named.
In the southwest corner of this sea is a group of scraggly, desolate reefs and rocks which are at the heart of the naming issue. The Spratly islands are disputed territory, claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. As with most sovereignty disputes over uninhabitable islands the issue is less about the land itself and more about the location, and what lies beneath. It’s a familiar story. What isn’t familiar is this way this is being played out, which resembles a real-life game of Risk. To support sovereignty claims these nations have been placing small settlements, buildings, and detachments of soldiers on these reefs and islets. As the landscape and political situation shifts, so do these settlements- a hurricane might force the evacuation of an islet, allowing an occupation by another country.
Strangest of these settlements is the Sierra Madre. It’s a rusting hulk of an ex-US Navy ship, owned by the Philippine government, which was intentionally run aground on a disputed reef over a decade ago. Since then it has been continuously occupied by a handful of Philippine soldiers, tasked with defending a claim to the area by simply residing there. It’s a wild story, one which Jeff Himmelman at the New York Times Magazine tells better than I ever could. He just produced a visually stunning and absolutely fascinating multimedia piece about it. If any of this interests you, I highly recommend giving it a look: NY Times – Of Shark and Minnow
This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder