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NEWS-Spratlys Seen as SE Asia's 'No

Subject: NEWS-Spratlys Seen as SE Asia's 'No.1 Flashpoint'

Spratlys Seen as SE Asia's 'No.1 Flashpoint'


               MANILA, May 13 (Reuters) - The Spratly Islands row is
Southeast Asia's most
               serious security threat and a U.S. presence is crucial to
contain any Chinese
               ambitions in the disputed area, defence experts said on

               "The common consensus...is that (the South China Sea
dispute) remains the
               No.1 flashpoint in our part of the world," former
Philippine defence secretary
               Renato de Villa told reporters after chairing a meeting
of former Southeast
               Asian defence and military leaders in Manila. 

               The Spratlys are a cluster of isles, reefs and rocky
outcrops in the South
               China Sea claimed wholly or in part by China, the
Philippines, Taiwan,
               Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. The islands straddle vital
sea lanes and are
               thought to be potentially rich in oil. 

               Tension flared in the area last year after Manila accused
Beijing of building a
               military garrison on Mischief Reef, which the Philippines
claims. Beijing says
               the facilities are shelters for Chinese fishermen. 

               The meeting was attended by former defence and military
chiefs from
               Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and

               De Villa said he had recommended Philippine policy makers
raise the
               Spratlys dispute with the United Nations. 

               "It seems (that) with respect to security problems... the
only way you get
               action is if you air the problem before the world and let
the world act on it,"
               de Villa said. 

               British security expert Eric Moriss said he believed
China's actions in
               Mischief Reef were aimed at gauging the reaction of the
United States, a
               traditional military ally of the Philippines. 

               "The victim is the Philippines, perhaps the target is
               relations," Moriss, head of a London-based consultancy
firm, told Reuters. 

               Moriss attended a separate meeting among defence analysts
on the
               relevance of modern warfare to the conventional armies of
the Association of
               South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which groups Malaysia,
the Philippines,
               Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos,
Myanmar and

               Moriss said one option for ASEAN countries concerned with
the South China
               Sea dispute was to deal with China as a collective group
while seeking the
               support of outside powers like the United States, Japan
and the European

               "(ASEAN) needs to get (them) to recognise that it's not
in their interest to see
               that the Chinese dominate the South China Sea," Moriss

               "The United States has to demonstrate to China that it
regards the South
               China Sea as a vitally important sea...and that there is
a clear presence of
               American national interests in keeping the South China
Sea free and open,"
               he said. 

               Former Southeast Asian defence and military leaders
meeting in Manila also
               said North Korea's capability to launch missiles was a