Philippines: Sparring In The Spratlys

1999

Professor Mark Turner

Collectively known as the Spratly Islands are numerous partly submerged and largely uninhabitable islets, reefs and rocky outcrops which are strung out over hundreds of kilometres of the South China Sea. According to a recent meeting of former ASEAN defence chiefs, this unlikely archipelago constitutes the 'number one flashpoint' in Southeast Asia. The current defence chiefs would be unlikely to disagree.

There are two major attractions of this beachfront real estate which make it such a desirable acquisition for the countries bordering the South China Sea. Firstly, it occupies a strategic location traversed by the major shipping lanes of the South China Sea. Secondly, there is a distinct possibility of large oil and gas reserves. This potential economic bonanza appears to be the leading reason for intensified sparring in the Spratlys between the various claimants to parts or all of the archipelago. The competitors include the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The Philippines bases its claim to the Spratlys on the their geographical location within the country's internationally recognised 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Unfortunately for the Philippines, proximity is only one of a number of factors which international law takes into account when dealing with such territorial claims. Back in the 1940s, the Philippine government did not display such interest in the Spratlys, failing to back its pioneering citizen, Tomas Clomas, when he claimed 'discovery' of the Spratlys. Taiwanese troops eventually chased his outnumbered and outgunned forces out of the area. By the 1970s the Philippines had begun to appreciate the potential of the Spratlys and started locating some troops and civilians on the inhospitable reefs which Clomas had called, in Tagalog, Kalayaan, or Freedomland.

But the Philippines faces some formidable opposition in its attempts to assert its contemporary claims, especially from China. In 1988 China even engaged in direct military action to dislodge Vietnamese troops from their positions on several reefs. The Chinese claim is longstanding. For example, in 1951 Chou Enlai, the Foregn Minister, noted Chinese ownership at the San Francisco peace conference. A combination of historical contact and location on the extension of China's continental shelf are employed to legitimate Chinese claims. But more importantly, China has gradually increased its physical presence in the islands, erecting structures and locating personnel there. In 1995, four 'fishing shelters' were built on the aptly named Mischief Reef. In 1998-99 the Philippines expressed concern about the 'repairs' being carried out on these structures. The shelters seemed to be expanding and this involved concrete in quantities not normally associated with fishing shelters. The Chinese ambassador to Manila said 'some meaning was lost in the translation'.

The Chinese activities might have generated some joint ASEAN opposition in times past. But at present the Philippines appears to be protesting on its own. Some commentators think this derives from a combination of Southeast Asia's preoccupation with economic recovery and appreciation of Chinese economic stability during the crisis, and through more sophisticated Chinese diplomacy. ASEAN solidarity is also undermined by other ASEAN claimants. For example, a new Malaysian construction has appeared on Investigator Reef featuring a helipad, radar and a pier. A Philippine defence report worries that these 'could obviously be used for military purposes'. The Malaysian authorities say that the structure is for climatic and marine-life studies.

In addition to the Spratly building boom tensions have been kept high by various incidents and announcements. A vessel from the Philippines' woefully equipped navy 'accidentally' sank two Chinese fishing boats earlier this year. A 56-year old supply ship also ran aground on one of the reefs. There has been an announcement that the Philippines and the USA will conduct joint military exercises in Palawan, the Philippine island closest to the Spratlys. The Chinese then declared a temporary fishing ban in part of the Spratly area. Despite the public statements about how the issue of Spratly ownership can and should be resolved by peaceful diplomacy the various claimants continue to spar and assert ownership by occupancy. Further sparring in the Spratlys is to be expected.

WATCHPOINT: Does Philippine military weakness and budget tightness mean it will not be able to assert its claim to the Spratlys?

 

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