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Mischief In The Spratlys

Great powers often probe for soft spots. Throughout history, that is what they have done. China is no different. --Blas Ople

As a source of friction between China and the Philippines, Mischief Reef is well named. The reef is part of the Spratly Islands, a cluster of desolate rocks and islets in the South China Sea. China has sent naval vessels into the area and has constructed crude buildings on some of the islands. Beijing maintains that the shacks are there solely to serve Chinese fishing boats. Manila describes the buildings as "military-type" structures and, in a diplomatic protest, has accused China of incursions in Philippine territorial waters. Now Manila is considering fighting it out with Beijing in the United Nations. Blas Ople, chairman of the Philippine Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, says he's prepared to ask the Security Council to take up the Mischief Reef issue soon. Ople, 71, talked with NEWSWEEK's Marites D. Vitug in Manila. Excerpts:

VITUG: You want the Philippine government to raise the issue of Chinese intrusion in Mischief Reef in the Security Council. Why?
The truth is that whether it's civilian or military in character, the Chinese committed an illegal encroachment on what is very clearly a reef well within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. Since both countries are signatories to the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, they both recognize the validity of the exclusive economic zones. It may appear that China has violated this international convention. I must be satisfied that we have a strong case, that if we go to the Security Council we can tell the whole world that this is a just cause, and that if they believe in the charter of the U.N. and in the purposes of the Security Council, they ought to intercede and tell China to remove these illegal structures from our territory in the South China Sea.

Will this be a purely Philippine effort?
[We have] been in touch with our ASEAN friends, but I don't know if they will join us in a petition to the U.N. Each has its own claim to at least a part of the Spratlys archipelago, and I don't think the other nations would like to court the antagonism of China at this time, when their own reefs are relatively secure from Chinese encroachment.

Why did China intrude at this time?
We are told that China is no longer content to be just a passive onlooker in the great power drama of the world. Of course, if China has hegemonic ambitions in the region, there are other powers that will not be happy to see China asserting itself with impunity. In that group of countries, obviously, are the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan and the United States.

Why is the Spratlys archipelago so important to the Chinese?
Don't forget that the South China Sea is a major passageway of world commerce. In a sense, it is the lifeline of Japan and the East Asian economies because the oil from the Middle East flows through the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea. If this is interrupted by any arbitrary limitation imposed by China, then this can paralyze the economies of the region. The safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is very important to the whole world.

What is China's message in this intrusion?
They always profess their undying friendship for the Philippines. But we know that such statements are always subject to proof. When we look for proof, there is not much that we can see. The Chinese Navy, one fine morning, just got in there and started building these military-type barracks, which they call "fishermen's sanctuaries" to shield their fishermen from typhoons. The trouble is, according to reconnaissance photos by the Philippine Air Force, these structures do not look like fishermen's sanctuaries at all. They seem to have radar systems which are not normally associated with the protection of fishermen.

China knows the Philippines has a weak Armed Forces. Are they being bullies?
Yes. Great powers, very often, probe for soft spots. They determine whether they can make some gains at very little or negligible cost. Throughout history, that is how great powers have conducted themselves. China is no different.

In the past, there have been proposals for the claimant countries-- Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia-- to jointly manage the Spratlys and explore oil deposits. Is this still a viable option?
The presidents of China and the Philippines agreed to form a committee of experts to advise on confidence-building measures. I will not be surprised if part of their mandate is to conceptualize a modus vivendi of sorts very similar to what Australia and Indonesia were able to reach on a contested island between them--through joint use and development. There are already precedents in the region for that. This means that claimant countries agree to set aside temporarily claims of sovereignty or the territorial issues and proceed on a scheme of joint development of resources and fair division of the fruits of such efforts.

Is the Spratlys mainly about oil?
There are studies saying that more than a trillion barrels of oil in energy reserves are lying in the seabed of the Mischief Reef area, which is very close to our shores. I'm not surprised that a lot of people believe there are tremendous oil resources in this area capable of attracting the attention of major powers, especially China.

Newsweek International, December 21, 1998


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