Spratly Rivals Forswear Use of Force

SIX Asian countries, squabbling over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, say they will resolve peacefully disputed claims to the area's potentially rich oil and gas reserves.At a conference held last week in Bandung, Indonesia, claimants China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei agreed not to use force and to put the territorial dispute on the back burner. Three years ago, the rocky atolls were the scene of clashes between troops from rivals China and Vietnam, raising fears that the islands could be a future flash point in Southeast Asia. The 1988 fighting left at least 70 Vietnamese dead and resulted in the sinking of two of Hanoi's ships. Chinese casualties are not known. "Any territorial and jurisdictional dispute in the South China Sea area should be resolved by peaceful means through dialogue and negotiation. Force should not be used," a joint statement said. The dispute over the Spratlys, believed to be the site of extensive oil and gas reserves set amid strategic shipping lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, rekindled recently when Malaysia launched tourist development on Terumbu-Layang-Layang, one of the hundreds of land bits, sandbars, and coral reefs. The multinational conference on the Spratlys was called after Chinese President Yang Shangkun reasserted Beijing's "undisputable sovereignty" over the area. Officials from 10 Asian countries attending the meeting also agreed to cooperate in protecting the islands' fragile environment and said the ownership dispute would complicate the handling of an environmental disaster. Taiwanese delegates accused Japan, which was barred from the meeting, of posing the biggest environmental threat. Japan is shipping spent nuclear fuel through the area en route to Britain and France for reprocessing, the delegation said.

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