PHILIPPINES President Fidel Ramos yesterday ordered more troops to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in response to China's occupation of a reef claimed by Manila.
The spat between the Philippines and China escalated since the Chinese were discovered a month ago building steel structures guarded by five warships on the shoal ironically named Mischief Shoal. Manila launched a strong diplomatic protest over the intrusion, but Beijing rejected it, saying the structures were shelters for fishermen.
In an apparent shift of diplomacy, Filipino officials who earlier said a military option was not being considered, are now demonstrating that Manila, although the weakest among six claimants to some or all of the Spratlys, cannot afford to be seen as an easy pushover, analysts say.
However, the possibility of an immediate confrontation was discounted as Manila recognizes that its poorly equipped armed forces are no match in a flare-up, while Beijing realizes it cannot afford to lose diplomatic goodwill in Southeast Asia.
Admitting to ''limited capabilities,'' Mr. Ramos ordered the armed forces ''to strengthen our detachments and our naval presence'' in the eight islands in the Spratlys that Manila fortified in 1977 and renamed the Kalayaan (Freedom) islands.
There are only 50 Filipino troops on the islands and Ramos gave no details as to how many more soldiers and ships were to be deployed.
China's might considered
Foreign Minister Roberto Romulo said Ramos considered the Chinese naval activities as a ''forceful demonstration of China's claim to the entire South China Sea.''
United States State Department officials have called for peaceful negotiations to settle the issue. So have Manila's neighbors -- Vietnam and Indonesia -- which are jittery over China's ambitions in the region.
China claims the entire Spratlys comprising about 260 islands, coral reefs, and atolls that lie near potentially rich oil and gas fields. Five other claimants -- Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines claim part of the islands.
Washington has made it clear that it would not come to the aid of its ally, the Philippines, if a confrontation breaks out, despite a mutual defense treaty between the two nations.
China is seen to be continuously testing the resolve of other countries in asserting its claim while professing peaceful intentions. It had earlier proposed that all claimants put aside the sovereignty issue until a later time while they cooperate in economic exploitation of the Spratlys. This was rejected by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has three members as claimants. The ASEAN regional forum suspects China is merely playing for time while it builds up a blue-water navy.
Pressures on Beijing
Noel Morada, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies in Manila, says China, preoccupied with a leadership succession and building trade ties, may not risk a confrontation.
Ramos also proposed a new approach toward resolving the dispute. He suggested that every disputed island be placed under the stewardship of the country closest to it, provided the steward allows anchorage and peaceful pursuit of other claimants.
Ramos said the issue was a multilateral concern not merely of the six claimants but of all countries interested in the long term stability of the region.