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Message-ID: <199904130705.DAA11631@saltmine.radix.net>
Date: Tue, 13 Apr 1999 03:05:54 -0400
Reply-To: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
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From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@RADIX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: Spratlys dispute heats up (Asiaweek)

X-URL: http://www.pathfinder.com/@@k1M9DaEaJgEAQL6S/asiaweek/current/issue/nat6.html

The Beijing-Manila Spratlys feud heats up

By Antonio Lopez, Manila and David Hsieh, Beijing, in Asia Week
13 April 1999

CALL IT SOCCER DIPLOMACY. Anxious to reduce tensions in the Spratly islands, Manila has offered to host friendly sporting competitions on Pag-asa, the largest of eight isles it occupies. It was not clear if all the other claimants to the disputed area (China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam) would allow their soldiers to join the fun. But Vietnam was an early taker. Originally, Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado proposed basketball - hoping perhaps that hoops superpower China wouldn't be able to resist. The Vietnamese balked at basketball, suggesting soccer instead. "I'll instruct our troops to learn soccer," Mercado told Hanoi. He plans to invite China and other claimants later.

In recent weeks, the Spratlys have once again become a worrying irritant. Manila asserts that China is mounting a creeping invasion of the islands in a campaign to assert its authority over the entire South China Sea. At issue are structures the Chinese have built on Mischief Reef, an atoll that is inside the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone - and about four times as far from China. Manila and others say the gun-turreted buildings are clearly for military purposes; Beijing continues to insist that they are shelters for storm-tossed fishermen.

The Chinese ambassador to Manila, Fu Ying, recently paid a courtesy call on President Joseph Estrada. Afterward, she proposed a two-month ban on fishing in the Spratlys - seen in Manila as more evidence that Beijing considers itself lord of the South China Sea. Talks between the two nations were already going nowhere, prompting a Philippine official to dub them a "dialogue of the deaf." China did agree to exercise "self-restraint" but rebuffed Manila's demand for a moratorium on Spratlys structures.

So what is with the soccer diplomacy? It seems Manila is trying to internationalize the Spratlys issue - something a bilaterally focused Beijing patently does not want. When he floated the idea of soccer games, Mercado was in Hanoi - in part to drum up support for Manila's position on the Spratlys dispute. Specifically he wanted a mutual agreement that each nation would help one another militarily should a crisis emerge in the archipelago. Philippine Congressman Roilo Golez reckons that if anyone should understand Manila's position it is Hanoi. He notes that China grabbed the Paracel islands (550 km north of the Spratlys) from Vietnam in 1974, as well as reefs in 1988.

Beijing considers Manila's approach to Hanoi a slap in the face. And the Chinese were also displeased when Estrada canceled a May visit to the mainland. Instead he will visit South Korea and Japan. "We should have been able to seek a solution based on bilateral consultations," snaps a senior Chinese official. "Regrettably, some people in the Philippines do not wish to see that happen." In Beijing, meantime, there is concern that Manila wants to bring the U.S. into the matter. The Philippine Senate may be set to approve a long-pending Visiting Forces Agreement that would oblige Washington to come to the aid of Manila's troops in the event of an attack. The Philippines assumes this would include any action in the Spratlys, although the U.S. is officially neutral on the Spratlys counter-claims.

As the Sino-Philippine spat was getting testier, annual talks between China and ASEAN got under way in Kunming. During the April 5-7 discussions ASEAN leaders hoped China would sign on to a code of conduct governing activities in and around the Spratlys, an idea mooted at talks in Hanoi last year. China nixed the notion.

Given that Beijing traces its sovereignty over the Spratlys back at least several hundred years, the dispute will not be solved any time soon. In the interim, all sides require a mechanism that reduces the likelihood of an armed skirmish. To that end, the Chinese point to a communiqu_ that Beijing and Hanoi signed in February.

The two capitals agreed to find a solution to bilateral problems through peaceful negotiations, and to keep communications open. Hardly a breakthrough; in fact, the Spratlys were never mentioned. But the Chinese were happy because Vietnam did not publicly dispute Beijing's sovereignty or seek to internationalize the matter.

Actually, China would rather put the Spratlys on the back-burner; it has other things to worry about. But that is unlikely to happen as long as Beijing expands its presence in the islands - and as long as Estrada says what he thinks. Soccer anyone?

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