This weekend the Peoples Republic of China and the United States are meeting in Hawai'i to discuss various items of mutual interest. Strangely one item of such interest the PRC has told the US not to bring up. According to the PRC the item does not concern the US.
This item the PRC does not want to discuss is called the Spratly Islands. If you look at the above map, it should be clear the US does have an interest. Look at the small box called Spratlys, it points to a location in the middle of a major sea lane of commerce and communications. To respond quickly to the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea, the US naval forces in Japan have to pass by the Spratly's. If a foreign power wanted to thwart the US, the Spratly's would be a good location. Not as good as the Malaca Straits, but with emplaced cruise missiles sea denial would be de facto. And US naval forces would have to travel down the eastern side of the Philippines, making a rapid response impossible.
Another reason why the US has an interest in the Spratly's is called alliances. All the oil that Japan, Taiwan[Republic of China], and South Korea need to keep operating pass by the Spratly Islands. So does the oil the PRC imports go past these islands. All of these countries have a strategic interest in those islands. Because the US is an ally to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, it also has an interest.
Unfortunately it has been the PRC that has tried to bully the other claimaints to the islands - Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. In 1988 the PRC sank a Vietnamese ship killing 80 sailors. Recently the PRC has tried to bar Vietnamese fishermen from fishing in the Spratly Islands. Philippines, Vietnam, and PRC have also at various times put military detachments in the Spratly Islands. A beacon on Michief Reef was smashed. And the PRC has been infringing upon Philippine and Japanese territorial waters.
The Philippines are expecting the United States to back them up under the 1951 mutual defense treaty. And this ally needs US support since their military is very weak. The last F-5 of the Philippine Air Force flew in 2005 and now they are looking to buy TWO MiG-29s or F/A-18s. Two aircraft for a nation of 7,000 islands. If the United States wanted to make a concrete committment to Philippine sovereignty, perhaps some aircraft at AMARC could be refurbished and sold for $100 ea to the Philippines. I note there are over 170 F-16C/D airframes at AMARC, surely we could raid the Stimulus for such a shovel ready project along with training pilots? It will probably take a year or so to spin it all up, but at this point it would be a concrete gesture that the US wants the Philippines to be independant.
Next month, a US Navy destroyer will particiapte in a search and rescue exercise with Vietnam. A new ally of the United States and a victim of PRC aggression. Naturally the PRC is calling one US Navy destroyer a provocative action. I think the PRC protests too much for it shows they do covet all of that area.
As if open sea lanes and alliances were not enough reasons for US intereste, here is another. The Spratly Islands sit atop approximately 17.7 billion tonnes of oil and natural gas. With the known demands of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea along with the rising appetite for oil from the PRC; the importance of these islands become clear. It would help free all these countries from being dependant upon Middle East oil as they are now. Would cut transit times and save money. Plus if Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines, or PRC can gain sole control of these islands; they will have a new source of revenue. For poor countries like Vietnam and Philippines, it could help boost their economies. For the PRC to own the Spratly Islands, they would gain tremendous power over their oil hungry neighbors as they sold or not sold the oil to them.
After writing the above, I have one thing to say. The United States does have a vital and vested interest in the matter of who owns the Spratly Islands. We need to make this concern abundantly clear to the Peoples Republic of China while working with our allies in the region to ensure they know we are there for them if they are attacked.