A RACE to command territory, oil, and vital sea lanes is churning new fears of conflict in the South China Sea.
In a move that unnerved Southeast Asia, China decided last month to push ahead with exploration for oil and gas in the disputed Spratly archipelago and signed an agreement with an American oil company.
In February, Beijing stunned its neighbors by passing a territorial waters law that covered the Spratlys (also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines), the Paracel Islands, and the Senkaku Island chain now administered by Japan. Reserving the right to use force to expel intruders, China could trigger a new naval clash with Vietnam, which fought Beijing over the Spratlys in 1988.
"China takes issues of territory, sovereignty, and stable borders seriously. China doesn't budge an inch and will never budge an inch," says a European military analyst and specialist in Asia. "There could be no resolution but war."
Under a diminishing United States security umbrella, the prospect of naval conflict grows as Asian countries nurse longstanding rivalries and territorial disputes, compete to sustain fast-growing economies, exert tighter rein over maritime domains and lawless shipping lanes, and vie for new fishing grounds, offshore oil, and water resources.
Already, the region is on its way to creating powerful navies by the turn of the century.
"In the past, the navies have not been the big swingers in terms of defense," says a Western military attache in Bangkok. "But as these economies grow, [the nations] realize they have some big-time interests that need maritime protection." Focus on security
A diplomatic settlement of Cambodia's civil war and a US pullout from the giant Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines have thrown security issues in Southeast Asia into prominence, Western and Asian analysts say.
In Cambodia, the United Nations struggles to implement a 1991 peace accord that ended a 13-year war and an international standoff involving world and regional powers. Yet the diplomatic peace rekindled rivalries among the six countries known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They include Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines.
The US was evicted in September 1991 from Subic, one of its largest overseas defense installations. For years, Subic represented the traditional US role of regional policeman, which underpinned a network of bilateral alliances. Officials say the US military will stay in Southeast Asia through a series of commercial- servicing, joint-training, and other arrangements with its allies. Although US officials contend a conflict in the region is not imminent, they admit that if a fight broke out over the Sprat ly Islands, there is a limit to what Washington could do.
"For us, it's not just vacillation but a lack of clarity to the US commitment to peace and stability in the region," says Jawhar Hassan, a defense analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "No one really thinks the US will go for a major showdown. There is a feeling that the US is less interested in this region than in other parts of the world."
Other destabilizing developments in the region include:
* Incidents of illegal fishing between Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
* Territorial spats among Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
* Thailand's disagreement with Vietnam over Thai plans to dam the Mekong River.
* An upsurge in piracy in the strategic shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca. Needing policemen
This sense of uncertainty is helping fuel an Asian naval buildup, analysts say. Southeast Asia has warily watched India amass the world's sixth-largest navy, although concerns have eased since economic troubles cooled Indian military spending.
Shunning regional defense cooperation, many Southeast Asian navies have launched big expansion plans. Malaysia proposes to expand its military presence in the South China Sea with a major naval base near Kota Kinabulu in Sabah Province. Indonesia plans a new naval headquarters on the island of Sumatra. Thailand has ordered six frigates from China and also proposes to acquire a helicopter carrier, maritime patrol craft, and seaborne helicopters. And the Philippines plans to acquire submarines and long-ran ge aircraft.
"In many of these countries, the Navy has been the weakest of the services," says a Western military analyst. "Now, they're on a fairly steep learning curve in terms of naval programs."
As Asia's largest country, China is also its greatest unknown. Estimated to have 50 submarines, 57 destroyers and frigates, and almost 900 patrol and coastal vessels, China's Navy in the future will have capabilities in amphibious assault, logistic supply, and air-to-air refueling.
Although a funding shortage forced suspension of plans to build its first aircraft carrier, China is reportedly developing southern Hainan Island as a forward base for patrol craft, military observers say.
"We must be aware that with exploitation of the sea, the maritime situation will be more complex.... The fight for ocean rights will become more fierce," Chinese Vice Adm. Zhang Lianzhong, commander of the Navy, was quoted as saying by China News Service.
"China now perceives itself as the main power checking a US-dominated order," says Mr. Hassan, the Malaysian analyst.
"Cultivating countries around her is a check on China doing anything drastic," he continued. "But as for us, we must be prepared for the worst. China has not contributed to confidence-building in the South China Sea, which we carefully nurtured." Cornered Vietnam
Vietnam in particular is cornered by the recent Spratly exploration agreement between China and Crastone Energy Corporation, a small Denver-based oil company. Although all but one of the major claimants now have a military presence on the Spratly chain, which includes 33 islands and 400 islets and atolls, Vietnam is closest and has crucial oil exploration under way nearby. Japan, which relies on oil-shipping lanes that traverse the Spratlys, also has cast a worried eye on developments, analysts say.
Hanoi, which just restored relations with Beijing late last year, would be vastly outgunned by the Chinese Navy. Still, military observers say a naval skirmish could widen and throw Asia's economic powerhouse into turmoil.
"Vietnam, being Vietnam, is not going to take this lying down," says a Western naval official. "And China should know that better than anyone else."