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.

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.

Several hundred US military advisers are now “embedded” in the Philippines, as a US official puts it, advising ill-equipped troops on combating revolt in Muslim-dominated southern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. US military reservists regularly come here for joint exercises with Philippine forces.

The US shies away, however, from any mention of a plan for working with the Philippines on the defense of Philippine claims in the Spratlys other than to reaffirm US commitment to the mutual defense treaty.

“We are dedicated to being your partner whenever you are in harm’s way,” the US ambassador to the Philippines, Harry K. Thomas Jr., said to President Aquino at a reception aboard the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

Beyond such generalities, however, US officials won’t get into specifics or details about a commitment to the Philippines in the Spratlys.

The Chinese, for their part, seem equally anxious to sidestep controversy. They deny the reports about the two MiGs and avoid discussion of reports that Chinese forces have been seen on six atolls, reefs, and shoals within the Philippine claim in recent weeks – an apparent surge in long-time Chinese activities there.

A top Chinese official, Jiang Shusheng, vice chairman of the standing committee of the 11th National People’s Congress, said in a visit here that the issue “should not be a hindrance to our special relations” – the same term that US officials are wont to use to describe US-Philippine relations. He dismissed as “mere incidents” the reports about the MiG overflights and Chinese forces on some of the reefs.

Vietnam also is reportedly building its forces in a show of anti-Chinese defiance, and it is believed to have built facilities within the area claimed by the Philippines. Malaysia and Brunei also claim other areas of the Spratly grouping, though their claims don’t seem to conflict with those of the Philippines.

Complicating matters further, the anticommunist "nationalist” Republic of China on Taiwan has held the biggest of the Spratly islands since the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945. The nationalist Chinese troops were never forced to relinquish the island despite their defeat on the Chinese mainland in 1949.

The Philippines, however, controls the second biggest island in the Spratlys, Pagasa, 200 miles west of Palawan. The island has no permanent residents but still has a lighthouse, municipal hall and multipurpose building, a post office and clinic, all for 75 to 100 construction workers. They get there by planes that land on a 2,000-foot airstrip.

“Some oil exploration is going on,” says Barry Riddell. “It looks like it will keep on going for a long time” – both the quest for oil and the long-running dispute.

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