|Chinese actions have led to protests in Vietnam|
The Spratly Islands are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands, which lie between Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Malaysia and Brunei. There are no native islanders, although some 45 islands are occupied by military forces from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The idea that any country can claim the region based on 'historic rights' is hard to justify, given that the islands were viewed as little more than uninhabitable hazards to fishermen until the twentieth century.
Interest in the two archipelagos heated up in the 1930s when China released official maps which showed the whole region as Chinese territory, despite the fact that France, then ruler of Indochina, actually governed both archipelagos.
China claimed that its southernmost maritime boundary was 4 degrees north latitude, thus extending all the way south to include the James Shoal, which lies just north of Malaysia.
What has happened recently?
The Phillipines' President Benigno Aquino said in July that his country will defend what it sees as its territory, and that it will shore up its military capabilities to ensure it is able to do so. There has been talk of the US supporting the Philippines's military.