The discourse on the South China Sea disputes is understandably laden with emotion. That is arguably a reason why debate on the subject should be based on facts. And yet, as Bill Hayton has noted, “Unreliable evidence is clouding the international discourse on the South China Sea disputes.” Indeed, it sometimes feels like a thick veil is hiding the truth about the South China Sea.
Consider, for instance, the argument that China, far from being the aggressor in the South China Sea, is in fact merely reacting to unilateral provocations by others such as Vietnam. That conclusion is based on some rather questionable evidence, including the suggestion that Vietnam has “doubled its holdings” in the South China Sea in the past 20 years. Even if one assumes that Vietnam occupied 24 features in 1996 (the actual data from which the map often drawn for this line of argument actually specifies 22), the idea that there has been some sort of doubling is misleading. The source for this claim – a 2015 congressional testimony by a senior U.S. defense official – in fact specified 48 outposts amongst the features occupied by Vietnam in the Spratly Islands, rather than 48 features. Using a 20-year timeline is also equally misleading because it leaves out China’s seizure of Mischief Reed 21 years ago.
But more broadly, the issue is that there is still no real clarity about who occupies what in the Spratly Islands. It is not uncommon to find articles – and sometimes even publicly available documents, maps and data – that contain inaccurate, conflicting and sometimes unreliable information. This piece attempts to address that issue by looking at who actually occupies what in the Spratlys. In investigating these questions, I have consulted multiple sources, many of which are primary, and interviewed several people knowledgeable about the subject matters. The information obtained has also been carefully checked.