#06/05/1997 08: 51

Johanna Son

MANILA, May 6 1997 (IPS) - The latest incursion by armed Chinese vessels into the disputed Spratly Islands shows that Beijing will continue to profess friendship with its neighbours, while it makes inroads in the South China Sea.

China’s recent foray into a part of the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines has sent a new wave of nervousness across South-east Asian countries, just two months after a Chinese dispute erupted with Vietnam over Beijing’s oil-drilling activities in the South China Sea.

As in the past, South-east Asian countries are trying to make sense of China’s confusing signals about its intentions in the region.

China’s newest encroachment “is really surprising”, Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon said. “In our relations, there should be no surprises.”

The Spratlys are a cluster of some 200 islets and reefs, claimed in part or wholly by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. They are believed to sit atop rich reserves of oil and gas, though these are unverified.

The Spratlys are located in the South China Sea, whose territorial waters make the region probably the most volatile security problem in East Asia.

The South China Sea disputes are especially touchy because ownership issues are difficult to resolve among so many claimants that view them as linked to national integrity — yet leaving them unsettled increases the potential for tension or even conflict in the future.

China has made many diplomatic statements pledging to avoid upsetting the status quo, and is party to a declaration by the Association of South-east Asian Nations that pledges to avoid provocative actions in disputed waters.

But China continues to assert what it calls its “proper legal rights” in the waters of the South China Sea, including going into areas claimed by other countries.

On April 29, the Philippine government issued a statement saying it was protesting the intrusion of four Chinese vessels sighted in an area claimed by Manila, near the Kota and Panata islands in the Spratlys west of the country.

Military officials said the vessels were a hydrographic survey ship, a Ganzu class vessel, a China Fishing Authority vessel and a Yenlai class vessel.

“We do not know what their mission is, but the reconnaissance pictures of the ships provided by the Air Force, show that these are fairly large ships that are armed with guns,” said Defense Secretary Renato de Villa. There were four other fishing vessels with the armed vessels.

“We are saying that we are concerned that they might have some intentions in the area,” De Villa said. Others theorised that the Chinese may have wanted to build more outposts in the Spratlys.

Officials presented to media pictures of the vessels taken from reconnaisance aircraft, also showing a hut-like structure built over a reef some 10 kms from Kota island.

The structure is similar to those built by the Chinese on the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, an incident that caused a diplomatic row when it was discovered in early 1995 and prompted the Association of South-east Asian Nations to take a united against against Beijing.

Filipino officials say while foreign ships can pass in the vicinity of the Kota and Panata islands, the vessels had been lingering in the area and were quite close to the islands.

Chinese officials here at first called the report a “fabrication”. After its ambassador was summoned by the foreign office in Manila, the Chinese government said on May 3 there was nothing wrong about the vessels’ presence in the Spratlys, which it calls the Nansha Islands.

“It is China’s proper legal rights and is unobjectionable that China conducted normal activities of peaceful use within the waters of its own jurisdiction,” said a statement by Hao Yinbiao, spokesman at the local embassy. The vessels were conducting marine survey measurements, he added.

They were reported to have left the Kota and Panata areas Friday, and the Chinese say the survey had been completed.

But the vessels’ departure does not mean the case is closed. Indeed, the ramifications of the incident will linger. The Chinese government’s claim that even the waters in the Kora and Panata areas belong to it worries Filipino diplomats.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the part of the Spratlys claimed by Manila — which it calls Kalayaan or Freedom Island — lies within its exclusive economic zone.

As such, those waters can be used for international passage by foreign vessels but its resources are managed by the Philippines, Foreign Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino says.

“Now, we may be facing disputes over the island. But it is clear the seas are ours. The ships of other nations can pass through, but we have responsibility over the resources and environment there,” he explained.

China should follow UNCLOS principles because it has already ratified the convention, he said. Observers had hailed China’s ratification of UNCLOS two years ago as progress, calling it a sign of Beijing’s willingness to follow international law.

But reading China’s mixed signals is not so easy. Some say Beijing is acting true to form, making the right noises in diplomatic fora but just as intent on protecting territorial interests that is crucial to China’s national pride.

Others say China’s actions do little to assure a region already nervous about its military modernisation drive. Calling China Asia’s “big bully”, Filipino Sen. Blas Ople said: “Beijing will be increasingly seen as an unreliable partner whose word cannot be taken at face value.”

In Hong Kong last month, U.S. ambassador to China James Sasser said Beijing’s inclusion in security dialogues with South-east Asia had helped defuse tensions and build confidence.

But he conceded that China’s dispute with Vietnam over oil- drilling near Hanoi’s territorial waters “raises some troubling questions about that commitment.”

For the Philippines, the latest Chinese moves grate even more because it came despite a much-trumpeted “code of conduct” the two countries agreed upon previously to prevent misunderstandings in the South China Sea.

Asian security experts had noted that China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 was particularly worrisome because Beijing chose to take on the Philippines, among the countries with the weakest military capabiliies in the region.

This time, the Chinese incursion triggered strident calls for tougher action against China, and for the Philippines to beef up its military.

“Saber rattling is fun only for countries with respectable sabers,” remarked political analyst Alex Magno. “A diplomatic solution is the only beneficial option we have.”

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