Tensions between China and Philippines rise over Spratly maritime borders
Recent flyovers by Chinese aircraft in the disputed Spratly Islands off the coast of the Philippines are raising concerns about China's expansionism.
Mysterious sightings of Chinese warplanes over islets, atolls, and reefs in the South China Sea – waters in which the Philippines and three other Southeast Asian nations have claims – have fueled reports here of China’s expansionist aims.Skip to next paragraph
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China has denied a report that two of its MiG fighter jets buzzed the area, but there’s no denying mounting tension over an island grouping of strategic and economic significance. Named for the 19th century English sea captain who sighted them, the Spratly Islands persist as a territorial issue while China increases its strength in the face of protests from the Philippines.
Although China sees the entire South China Sea as within its sphere of influence, the sense among experts is that the contest for the islands is not likely to intensify unless huge deposits of oil, gas, and other minerals are found here.
“I don’t think China will provoke any kind of confrontation,” says Barry Riddell, a long-time diplomatic and political analyst here. “China wants to keep alive the claims, to keep acting, but it will not do much more unless they find oil down there.”
The problem, however, is that Philippine forces are stretched perilously thin amid simmering revolts by both communist and Muslim forces elsewhere and still do not appear to have a clear sense of what’s happening on islets off the large southwestern coastal island of Palawan. Periodic sightings of Chinese planes and ships appear vague and unverified – evidence of the tenuous nature of the Philippines hold over the troubled waters.
Thus it was that the Philippines president, Benigno “Nonoy” Aquino spoke last week in the vaguest of terms when asked what he believed the Chinese were doing. He even backed off from accusing China of any wrongdoing saying he did not think it was “established conclusively" that the planes were from China and “it’s difficult to accuse them when it’s not very clear whose they are.” [Editors note: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story misspelled Mr. Aquino's nickname]
The dispute over the islands confronts the US with a delicate diplomatic and military puzzle since the US and the Philippines are locked in a mutual defense treaty that has survived for 60 years.