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China Fights for the Riches of the South China Sea

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

The sparks are flying in what has been a diplomatic and propaganda war for a little-known island chain claimed in whole or in part by half a dozen powers, notably China but also Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Mysterious sightings of Chinese warplanes over distant islets, atolls, and reefs in the South China Sea have fueled reports of China's expansionist aims in these troubled waters. They have assumed importance with the realization that a fortune in oil and gas lingers beneath the shallow sea. The contest most recently has involved a strange realignment of interests in which big brother China, Hanoi's main ally in the war that culminated in the victory of North Vietnam's forces in 1975, is now Vietnam's foe.

Hostilities so far have consisted of sporadic "incidents." Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat of deliberately getting entangled in the cables of a Vietnamese vessel looking for oil and gas on behalf of Petro Vietnam, Vietnam's state energy company. The Chinese accused the Vietnamese of dragging the Chinese vessel for 30 minutes before two more Chinese boats came to the rescue. Earlier, the cables of another such Vietnamese vessel were slashed. Finally, China sent a 3,000-ton maritime patrol boat, the Haixun 31, complete with helipad, to reinforce "rights and sovereignty" over 1.7-million square miles of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and the Paracels, another island grouping to the north. The Haixun 31 would "carry out patrolling of the marine areas being developed in the South China Sea," said Takung Pao, a newspaper in Hong Kong that has long been a mouthpiece for Beijing. Vietnam responded with live-fire exercises off its coast, and demonstrators protested outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese consulate-general in Ho Chi Minh City. "Stop the invasion," said one of the signs in Vietnamese.

The government-sanctioned outpouring of widespread Vietnamese sentiment was background music to formal statements and protests. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung led the chorus, declaring the country's sovereignty was "incontestable" and proclaimed his determination to defend it. At the heart of the Vietnamese stand was a geographical fact that the Chinese prefer to ignore. The Vietnamese were looking for oil and gas inside their 200-mile, 370-kilometer "exclusion zone," within which they claimed the right to do as they pleased in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Actually, relations between China and Vietnam began deteriorating even before the momentous victory of communist forces from North Vietnam in their war against the American-backed South Vietnamese regime in 1975. China seized the Paracels from South Vietnam in 1974 but refused to turn them over to its former Vietnamese ally. Then, China backed the Khmer Rouge through nearly four years of bloody rule over Cambodia before the Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978. Next, China attacked Vietnam's northern frontier at the end of 1978. The Vietnamese fended off that invasion with the same ferocity with which they have battled the Chinese periodically over the centuries. More quietly, they occupied half a dozen atolls in the Spratlys, sending in tanks as artillery pieces while dispatching marines and patrol boats.

Over the years, China has seized atolls in the Spratlys and built facilities serviced by Chinese navy vessels, thinly disguised as trawlers. The Chinese, who first occupied nine of the islands in the 1950s, control an anchorage known as Mischief Reef, whose subsurface atolls shelter a horseshoe-shaped lagoon that forms an anchorage four kilometers long and two kilometers wide. Now it is feared the Chinese want to form a small airstrip on the reef, several feet above water at low tide but only inches above the waves at high tide. Yes, it would be an engineering "miracle," but it could happen. Complicating matters still further, the anti-communist "nationalist" Republic of China on Taiwan has held the biggest of the Spratlys since the surrender of the Japanese at the end of World War II. "Nationalist" Chinese troops have never relinquished the island despite their defeat on the Chinese mainland in 1949.

The Philippines controls the second biggest island in the Spratlys, 200 miles west of the long Philippine island province of Palawan off the west coast of Mindanao. The island, named Pagasa, has no permanent residents but boasts a lighthouse, municipal hall and multi-purpose building, a post office and clinic, all for 75 to 100 construction workers who get there by planes that land on a 2,000-foot airstrip. There are no real permanent residents, but life is not totally austere. There's fishing and swimming, and the recreation hall features karaoke and billiards. There's also an elected "mayor" who claims Pagasa as home though he lives most of the time in Puerto Princesa, Palawan's capital.

China initially denied a report that two of its MiG fighters buzzed the area, but there was no question something was going on after Chinese patrol boats were seen on China's national television network blasting away at one of the atolls while a pair of MiG fighters zoomed above. It was all a military exercise, according to the official report, featuring fourteen boats "defending atolls and protecting sea lanes" as they pretended to be attacking submarines while leaping into the surf and running onto beaches.

The confrontation over the island grouping of strategic and economic significance goes back decades. Named for the 19th-century English sea captain who sighted them, the Spratly Islands persist as an issue while China increases its strength in the face of protests from the Philippines and Vietnam. The problem for the Philippines is that their forces have their hands full combating simmering revolts by communist and Muslim grouping elsewhere, and do not have a clear sense of what's happening on the Spratlys. Thus it was that the Philippines president, Benigno "Nonoy" Aquino, spoke in the vaguest of terms when asked what he believed the Chinese were doing. Regarding the MiG sightings, he did not think it was "established conclusively that they were from China" and "it's difficult to accuse them when it's not very clear whose they are."

The dispute over the islands confronts Washington with a delicate diplomatic and military puzzle. The US and the Philippines are locked in a mutual defense treaty that has survived for 60 years despite the Philippines' refusal to extend the agreement for enormous US air and naval bases in the 1990s. Several hundred US military advisers are now "embedded," as a US official put 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. Washington shies away, however, from any plan for working with the Philippines on the defense of Philippine claims in the Spratlys other than to reaffirm the US commitment to the mutual defense treaty.

Indicative of US reluctance to get involved, the American ambassador to the Philippines, Harry K. Thomas Jr., hosting President Aquino at a reception aboard the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, said, "We are dedicated to being your partner whenever you are in harm's way" - all part of "a commitment born of our shared histories and close ties." Beyond such generalities, US officials won't get into specifics or details about a commitment to the Philippines in the Spratlys.

Washington, in fact, would like to remain above the fray, calling for a multilateral understanding. That's anathema to Beijing, which insists on bilateral talks with each of the claimants - a ruse to keep them from forming a de facto alliance against Chinese ambitions. The US, however, is not backing off entirely. US navy ships occasionally ply the waters, just to show they're international, not Chinese, and the aircraft carrier George Washington made a courtesy call off the central Vietnamese port of Danang in August 2010, the headquarters for US marines during the Vietnam War. The United States and Vietnam, after talks in Washington in June, shared common cause, issuing a joint statement calling for "peace, stability, safety and freedom of navigation" -- and settlement of "disputes in the South China Sea" through diplomacy, not "use of force."

The Chinese try to sidestep controversy while making no real concessions as much as possible. 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. A top Chinese official, Jiang Shusheng, vice chairman of the standing committee of the 11th National People's Congress, said in a visit to Manila that the issue "should not be a hindrance to our special relations"-the same term that US officials use to describe US-Philippine relations. He dismissed as "mere incidents" reports about the MiG overflights and Chinese forces on some of the reefs.

Although China sees the entire South China Sea as within its sphere of influence, the sense is that the contest for the islands will not erupt in a serious shooting war until or unless huge deposits of oil, gas, and other minerals are found there. Barry Riddell, a long-time diplomatic and political analyst in Manila, believes that China does not want to "provoke any kind of confrontation." Yes, he told me during a recent visit, "China wants to keep alive the claims, to keep acting." Yes, he said, "Some oil exploration is going on" -- and "will keep on going for a long time." No, he seemed confident, the Chinese "will not do much more unless they find oil down there."

Besides oil, of course, the brouhaha is about the environment, marine life, resorts, and fishing rights. What really fuels it, though, is whatever is beneath the shallow ocean floor around the atolls. A retired Philippine navy captain, Rex Robles, did not hide his anger over Chinese expansionism. "You see somebody in your back yard," he said. "He says, 'Let's talk this over,' but he refuses to leave." Robles had no doubts about the underlying issue. "It is a prime oil and natural gas area," he said. Arturo Carlos, a former member of the board of a Philippine oil company, told me during a visit to Palawan some years ago that "water intrusion in the oil" has impeded exploration. Nonetheless, he assured me, "There is black gold underneath."

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