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Spratlys > News > English News > Sept 2002

Category: @News

Don't Neglect the Spratlys

By Matt Williams - FEER - Issue cover-dated September 26, 2002

The writer is a research assistant in the China Studies Department of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

When the Asean Regional Forum, or ARF, met this summer to discuss security concerns facing the Asia-Pacific region, not surprisingly, terrorism, Kashmir and the Korean peninsula dominated the agenda. Sadly, unresolved territorial claims to the Spratly Islands, an increasingly volatile flashpoint, received only token consideration. The continual lack of substantial progress on this issue threatens to march East Asia closer to disaster.

Rich in minerals, oil, natural gas and fish, the sea lanes of the South China Sea--passage for one-quarter of global trade--are an attractive prize for the six players with claims to the Spratlys: Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. An outbreak of conflict would impact every member of the Asia-Pacific community and would have a negative rippling effect on the global economy. Thankfully, clashes among those in Southeast Asia have been very minor and needn't be much fretted about.

The primary source of concern is China. China's "creeping assertiveness" into the 200 islets and reefs, along with its unwillingness to negotiate multilaterally, has left the other claimants with little recourse. In 1995, China built a small "outpost" on Mischief Reef--the Pentagon argues that it bears the look of a future military installation--that has since led to periodic skirmishes between China and both Vietnam and the Philippines. Just recently, Vietnam accused China of conducting military exercises with live ammunition in Vietnamese waters.

Yet, at the moment, international attention has strayed from issues involving the South China Sea. Already frequently avoided or shelved, the dispute in the area is difficult to discuss given the differing diplomatic styles of the states involved. In particular, China does not easily consent to Southeast Asia's multilateral approach because of its sensitivity to national sovereignty. China did agree to approach the issue multilaterally in 1995--itself a huge achievement--but in every attempt at progress since, Beijing has nonetheless emerged as the main impediment.

In principle, the claimants have agreed on a code of conduct that would govern movements in the region, but this has yet to emerge in practice because of China's consistent disagreements over certain clauses. Working with China in a regional forum understandably is a slow process, but as issues over the South China Sea are downplayed, China feels less pressured to accommodate any external demand. But as time passes and more parties build "outposts," compromise will become more difficult as it will necessitate withdrawal and loss of face.

As the Chinese stake their claims it has been equally hard to rein these in, so efforts have centred on "confidence-building." But this has yielded limited results. Resources and the steadfast defence of national sovereignty fuel the dispute, international law struggles to make sense of the claims--China's is based on "archaeological" evidence that supposedly proves the islands were always a part of the Chinese "motherland"--and regional discussions avoid the debate for fear of halting progress elsewhere.

Yet for all that, the South China Sea must be made a higher priority. The international community has learned that China will participate in policy or dialogue when it perceives enough self-benefit. In the Spratlys, however, China's intentions involve both resources and rank. Accordingly, to entice it to the table, negotiations must appeal to China's desire for a leadership role in Asia.

Perhaps then it would be feasible to convince China of proposals to share the resources of the area rather than assert military might over all of it. In other words, the goal is to get China to agree on cooperation that would result in joint development and joint benefactors, instead of focusing on intransigence.

As the Spratlys simmer on the back burner, other problems grab the spotlight. This has happened before. Challenges like terrorism were not addressed appropriately when first identified; now they have greatly intensified and handling them will cost governments far more than it initially would have. If China's expansionist tendencies are not checked, the Spratlys will one day join this list of issues that rightly should have attracted more early attention. Unfortunately, restoring peace following an eruption in the South China Sea would be extremely costly.