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Storm Alert for the Spratlys: China

Subject: Storm Alert for the Spratlys: China Expected to Flex Muscles in

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Paris, Thursday, May 20, 1999
Storm Alert for the Spratlys: China Expected to Flex Muscles in Message to
By Michael Richardson International Herald Tribune
SINGAPORE - With relations between the United States and China strained
following the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and subsequent
violent demonstrations in China, some officials and analysts say that
Beijing will pursue a more assertive Asian policy to show that it is a
rising power that must not be taken for granted.
Diplomats in Southeast Asia say that one likely area for any Chinese
muscle-flexing is the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea
because Beijing regards the area as strategically important, an inalienable
part of China's sovereignty and an issue over which Washington is reluctant
to get involved.

A Philippine official said that China had occupied 11 islands and reefs in
the Spratlys in recent years, including Mischief Reef in 1995, about 135
nautical miles from the Philippines, to strengthen its claim over much of
the South China Sea and the valuable oil, natural gas and fisheries in the

Nearly all the Chinese occupations were of places not already garrisoned by
other claimants - Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. But
most of the habitable points have now been taken, leaving Beijing with the
choice of using force to evict rivals if it wants to continue strengthening
its presence in the area. 

''We are worried that hard-liners in the Chinese civilian and military
leadership will use the nationalist fervor in China triggered by the bombing
to outflank those who favor a more restrained policy toward the region,''
the Philippine official said. ''One of the first signs of a more assertive
approach could come in the Spratlys, which Beijing regards as a touchstone
of Chinese sovereignty second only to Taiwan.''

Douglas Paal, a former U.S. government Asia specialist who is now president
of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington, said that in reaction to
the bombing of its embassy, China was likely to seek out an issue or area
that would remind the United States and other countries that its interests
and clout could not be ignored.

''Maybe another island in the South China Sea will be taken before we can,
or are willing to, do anything about it,'' he said. ''Maybe they will walk
out of the four-party peace talks on Korea. Maybe they will test a missile
of concern to our defense establishment.'' 

Analysts said that U.S. government preoccupation with the Kosovo crisis and
the Pentagon's worries that its forces might not be able to engage
successfully in two regional conflicts at the same time in different parts
of the world had made Washington wary of being drawn into the Spratly
dispute unless freedom of navigation through the vital shipping routes of
the South China Sea was threatened.

At the same time, the analysts said, many countries in the Association of
South East Asian Nations were concentrating on trying to recover from East
Asia's economic crisis and had reduced defense spending to cut costs.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the
Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

''Today, there is the growing perception that China is taking advantage of
ASEAN preoccupation with economic issues to improve its position in the
South China Sea,'' Michael McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral who
now directs Asian studies at the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington,
said in a recent report.

''China is also exploiting the U.S. understandable reluctance to become
embroiled if the sea lanes are not imperiled.''

But Admiral McDevitt said that ''an aloof legalistic'' position that ignored
the concerns of U.S. friends and allies in the region over China's
activities in the Spratlys raised questions about the value of supporting
the American military presence in Asia and the Pacific in the face of
opposition from Beijing. 

Reflecting a concern about weakened U.S. leadership that is shared by many
other East Asian officials, the senior minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew,
said in an interview in the latest issue of Asiaweek magazine that ''NATO's
terrible mistake'' in bombing the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia ''will put
America on the defensive for the time being.''

But he said that he did not see ''the present China'' wanting to establish a
dominant military position in Southeast Asia.

''They take one major step at a time,'' Mr. Lee said. ''When the Taiwan
issue is settled, and that may take a very long while, we will have to weigh
the equation again.''

China's emergence as ''a dominant claimant in the Spratlys,'' he said, had
muted territorial quarrels among ASEAN states as to who owned what in the
area. ''ASEAN countries now say let's close ranks and negotiate together - a
natural defensive move,'' Mr. Lee added.

In an apparent move to reassure the United States and the region of
Beijing's peaceful intent, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Fu
Ying, said Monday that keeping key sea lanes through the South China Sea
free and safe for international navigation was in the interest of China, as
well as the United States, Japan and other countries in the region.

She said that Beijing could guarantee freedom of navigation in the area and
that China was not a threat to the region.

But President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines said that concern about
Beijing's sweeping claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea was not
merely about control of barren islands and reefs. ''It is about Southeast
Asia's bottom-line security,'' he said.