IN a bid to raise the stakes against China's recent taking of several Spratly Islands, the Philippines plans to build seven lighthouses in the area, hoping to reassert its claim in the South China Sea.
Regional analysts worry about how China may react to Manila's countermove. They note that the Chinese military may be behind Beijing's aggressive push southward during a time when the civilian leadership appears occupied by a power struggle over who will replace ailing leader Deng Xiaoping.
Four other countries - Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei - claim all or part of the Spratlys and are alarmed by China's buildup on the Manila-claimed reefs.
The Spratlys - a collection of islands and reefs - straddle vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea. But because of a widespread belief that the area holds vast wealth in minerals, it has become a potential flash point in Asia.
Indonesia has tried to defuse tensions by having scientists from each claimant state meet to discuss how to turn the area into a protected marine reserve.
But tensions have risen to such a level that the Group of Seven industrialized nations issued a statement last month calling on all the claimants to solve their differences peacefully. The statement, while heartening to Manila, by no means indicates the United States wants to get involved.
"The US position is better than before," says one Western diplomat. "Whereas Washington took no position earlier in the Spratlys disputes, there is now a recognition that there is a higher level of Chinese activity and increased tension. So Washington has come out to oppose the use of force ... and is supportive of efforts taken in various forums to address this issue."
One Asian diplomat believes Manila was hoping that any shooting will bring in the US. "It is wishful thinking," the diplomat says. "Even when the crunch comes, the US is in no mood to step in," he says.
"I don't think the Spratlys is high in the US security priority," concurs Noel Morada, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies in Manila.
The Philippines' announcement that it will build the seven lighthouses to demarcate its claim in the Spratlys is seen as a further provocation.
"This is going to provoke the Chinese," says the Asian diplomat. "If the intention is to delineate the claim, China will not keep quiet. I'm concerned about the way the Philippines is going about it. It can spark a conflict, not next week, but further down the road."
The lighthouses are part of the Philippines' strategy to internationalize the issue or at least bring world attention to China's expansionist ambitions. China was recently angered when Manila took a group of journalists to photograph Chinese military structures at Mischief Reef, a shoal claimed by the Philippines.
Last month, Manila blew up a Chinese marker on its territory, and has been destroying such markers since 1993 to forestall the Chinese from building permanent structures. China has not reacted to such action, but "lighthouses built too near China's claims are not going to help," the diplomat warns.
Mr. Morada thought that the lighthouses, ostensibly to aid navigation, will be "a message to China that we can't be bullied."
"This is part of the effort of the Philippines to call attention of concerned countries ... to make a very clear stand as far as this issue is concerned," he says.
The Philippines, lacking the military might to take on China, he continues, is handling the crisis through its wits.
A strong US military presence in the Philippines ended in 1992 after Manila canceled a pact with Washington.
The Asian diplomat worries that Beijing's civilian leadership, preoccupied with a succession battle, may not be able to control the Chinese military. "We just don't know to what extent the military is willing to act responsibly," he says.
Apart from keeping the issue alive in the international media, the Philippines realizes its best recourse is to go along with the idea of declaring the Spratlys a marine reserve - a move which would block all oil exploration - and freeze all claims.
The Philippines Cabinet recently approved a plan to approach the United Nations to support this move in a workshop proposed to be held here in October.
At a recent meeting in Singapore, many scientists looking at the Spratlys urged claimants to focus on developing the rich fishing grounds - rather than turning the Spratlys into a battleground over uncertain oil riches.
"There isn't much evidence that there is oil and gas in the Spratlys," Ian Townsend-Gault, director of the Center for Asian and legal studies at the University of British Colombia in Canada said..