China Tries to Hide Its Land Grab But Manila Pulls Back the Curtain

IT is a scene no neighbor of China would like to see: An invasion by a group of Chinese bringing ships, people, buildings -- and guns.

But for the Philippines, the scene is all too real, even to the point of a ship-to-ship confrontation in this watery corner of Asia where China has taken over several scattered islets, sandbars, reefs, and atolls as theirs over the past year.

China's taking of the disputed Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands was laid bare to foreign journalists this month on a ''media mission'' set up by the Philippine government.

The mission itself, as well as an encounter between an old Philippine Navy ship and two Chinese fishing vessels, revealed just how much China wants to play down its land grab in the South China Sea.

The reef lies some 135 miles southwest of the Philippine island of Palawan, which Manila claims is within its 200-mile economic zone.

Beijing tried to stop the six-day tour through diplomatic channels. But Philippine President Fidel Ramos brushed aside China's objections and ordered the party to proceed under military escort.

Beijing's foreign ministry warned the press visit would ''internationalize'' a dispute it considers bilateral, although four other countries also lay claim to the all or portions of the Spratlys. And China, Asia's strongest military power, accused the Philippines, one of the weakest, of invading Beijing's sovereignty.

But the real drama was on the high seas. China tried to disrupt the tour of the reef, which China has only recently fortified.

The confrontation began when the first helicopter filled with journalists left the Philippine ship Benguet. The two Chinese fishing vessels, flying the red Chinese flag, rushed toward the ship, cut across the bow, and hemmed it in.

A Philippine patrol boat was ordered to ward off the Chinese. All this was watched by 39 astonished Philippine and foreign journalists standing on deck. At one stage one of the trawlers came within shouting distance of the Benguet, and as journalists shouted questions at them, the Chinese waved. Both trawlers were close enough for journalists to see ''China Fishing Administration'' painted in Chinese characters.

Major Gen. Carlos Tanega, chief of the Philippines' western areas command, who was leading the group, was visibly irate.

Later, two Chinese frigates were seen racing towards the Benguet, one furiously puffing black smoke. But the Philippine Navy ship decided against a confrontation and sailed off.

General Tanega later tried to play down the 70-minute standoff and attributed it to Chinese ''curiosity'' as a probable reason for them coming so close. ''I only surmise,'' he said, ''they were looking for us. They didn't know what we're doing and where the helicopters were taking off.''

The helicopter sorties buzzed the Chinese at Mischief Reef, where they have built four clusters of steel structures. One helicopter came as close as 50 yards of Site 2, the largest cluster of octagonal-shaped buildings. At least five Chinese came out, one looking through binoculars and others peering from behind a door. The other three clusters were similar: each with the Chinese red flag flying, a parabolic antenna on the roof, and gun placements on the sides. The structures had push-out windows, and laundry was seen hanging on lines in some clusters.

Red-and-white poles plus three buoys were seen sticking out of the entrance of the oval-shaped lagoon. These were apparently markers to guide boats into the lagoon. Two orange-colored boats sat at the entrance of the beautiful lagoon and, outside, a Chinese frigate stood guard.

The Chinese structures were stunning, since they were built up from bare atolls submerged by water most of the time. Manila says the Chinese built the structures between June and December 1994, but they weren't detected till this February because of the typhoon season when the Philippine Air Force couldn't conduct air surveillance.

China's southward expansion has created anxiety in Asia. Japan and the United States worry about the future security of the vital sea lanes. Apart from China and the Philippines, the potentially oil-rich Spratlys are also claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

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