Spratly Islands remain an international hot spot during relatively quiet holiday season

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      Apart from all the news involving ISIS, there haven't been many major international stories over the past few days.

      This is not like in 1989 when a Romanian revolution led to the Christmas Day execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena.

      Nor is the world facing a crisis like the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. That catastrophe killed 230,000 people in 14 countries.

      But there is still trouble brewing in several hot spots, including the South China Sea.

      The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that on Boxing Day, about 50 protesters from the Philippines, mostly students, landed on Pagasa Island (also known as Thitu Island) in the Spratly archipelago.

      It's the site of a territorial dispute involving the Philippines, Taiwan (Republic of China), Malaysia, China, Brunei, and Vietnam.

      Few people live there, but the area is home to potentially large reserves of oil and gas, as well as productive fishing areas.

      The Spratly Islands are to the west of the Philippines.

      This is not a new controversy. Last May, columnist Gwynne Dyer highlighted how a war between China and the United States could conceivably be sparked by Beijing's brazen claims in the area.

      China has even constructed islands to assert its sovereignty. In late October, the Global Times, which is published by the Chinese government, printed an editorial accusing the United States of "provocations" by sending naval vessels in the area. The Chinese paper also declared that America has "no hope" of winning any showdown in the area.

      In 1946, the Chinese government sent warships to the area to claim the islands. Taiwan maintains that it retained the territory after the nationalist government set up its capital in Taipei at the end of the Chinese civil war.

      This video presents Taiwan's case for claiming sovereignty over the islands.

      However, the Philippines has filed a claim at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague asserting its sovereignty over the area. Part of the claim rests on the owner of a Philippine fishing company, Tomas Cloma, stating that he found the islands in 1956.

      The country sent troops to some islands in 1968. Vietnam later began occupying reefs in the archipelago.

      In 2008, Taiwan's then president, Chen Shui-bian, became the first head of state to visit the islands. The biggest in the chain, Taiping (also known as Itu Aba), is 48 hectares in size and about 1,000 kilometres south of Taiwan.

      Taiwan maintains that since 1956, it has continuously occupied Taiping Island, which has an airstrip and a 10-bed hospital. There's also a temple, which was built in 1959.

      Taiping Island, aka Itu Aba, has coconut trees (above), a hospital, an airstrip, and farms.

      This month, Taiwan's interior minister, Chen Wei-zen, and Coast Guard minister Wang Chung-yi were on Taiping Island to mark the opening of a wharf and a lighthouse. 

      A Taiwanese government news release notes that four wells drilled on the island show the percentage of fresh water at 99.1, 75.8, 97.5, and 96.8—amounting to an average of 92.3 percent.

      "About 65 metric tons of water can be pumped from these wells daily to provide drinking water and meet cooking and everyday needs," the news release states. "Natural vegetation flourishes on the island, providing coconuts, papayas, and plantains. For years, personnel stationed on the island have made use of its various resources, growing fruits and vegetables, and raising poultry and livestock to meet their daily needs."

      Taiwan claims sovereignty over not only the Spratly Islands, but also the Shisha, Chungsha, and Tungsha islands in the South China Sea.

      The Taiwanese say they want to establish Taiping Island as a "peaceful and low-carbon island, as well as an ecological reserve".

      "From legal, economic, and geographic perspectives, Taiping Island indisputably qualifies as an 'island' according to the specifications of Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and can sustain human habitation and economic life of its own," Taiwan's government declares. "It is thus categorically not a 'rock'."

      The Philippines navy and coast guard have arrested Vietnamese and Chinese fishermen in the past, which has escalated tensions. 

      Philippines president Benigno Aquino has warned China that it will defend the territory if pushed to do so.

      President Benigno Aquino warns China that it will defend its claims in the Spratly Islands.

      Taiwan, on the other hand, has tried to portray itself as a peacemaker in the region.

      President Ma Ying-jeou announced an initiative last May to "jointly ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea, uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight, and conserve and develop resources in the region".

      Ultimately, the might of the U.S. military and its government may determine the long-term future of the Spratly Islands.

      This month, the Obama administration announced that it will sell $1.83 billion worth of arms to Taiwan.

      In 1982, the Reagan administration assured Taiwan that it did not recognize China's sovereignty over the island nation.

      In 2001, then president George W. Bush said that the Americans would be obliged to protect Taiwan if it were attacked by China.

      However, the Philippines has not been given similar assurances by the Americans if it were ever attacked by China, according to testimony given in 2014 by Philippines solicitor general Florin Hilbay.