Eric Campbell takes us on a journey to a place few outsiders ever get to experience – the place some say could be the trigger for the world’s next major conflict – the Spratly Islands, smack bang in the middle of the oil-rich South China Sea.
In an Australian television exclusive, he catches a series of boats to reach the remote chain of islands and coral reefs that are claimed by no fewer than six countries – China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Many of the so called “islets” are simply specks of submerged rock in the middle of nowhere, but have been built up by competing nations over the years in order to bolster their claims of ownership.
There are military forces from different countries living on different islands, often within shouting distance of each other.
They’re probably the most contested islands in the world. It’s believed the undersea bed in the region is rich in oil and gas, it’s an important shipping lane, and there are vast fishing grounds to be exploited.
“We call our island group the submerged Saudi Arabia of the Philippines”, the mayor of one island tells Foreign Correspondent. Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon runs a municipality with just 150 residents – Kalayaan, which means Freedomland in the local language.
Posing as fishermen, Campbell and his crew go to Ayungin Shoal, where besieged marines live on a rusting, scuttled ship on the submerged reef.
Chinese maritime forces attempt to stop them in a high-speed chase.
The crew managed to reach the shallow coral before the vessels could block them.
They found a group of hungry marines living on fish they catch on the reef as Chinese ships circle the reef 24 hours a day.
About Foreign Correspondent:
Foreign Correspondent is the prime-time international public affairs program on Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC-TV. We produce half-hour duration in-depth reports for broadcast across the ABC’s television channels and digital platforms. Since 1992, our teams have journeyed to more than 170 countries to report on war, natural calamity and social and political upheaval – through the eyes of the people at the heart of it all.