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The Spratly Islands: A Threat To Asian Regional Stability

The Spratly Islands: A Threat To Asian Regional Stability

 

CSC 1995

 

SUBJECT AREA - Foreign Policy

 

 

 

 

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

TITLE: The Spratly Islands: A Threat to Asian Regional Stability

 

AUTHOR: K. Scott Holder, Defense Intelligence Agency

 

THESIS: Will the Spratlys dispute spark the next great Asian war, is it in

part causing a regional arms race, and can the U.S. help solve

the problem.

 

BACKGROUND: The Spratly Islands are a contentious sovereignty dispute

involving almost all the littoral states of the South China Sea. The dispute is

complicated by hardline negotiation stances and the possibility that the area

contains significant gas and oil deposits. International law concepts

developed over the last decade have complicated the issue and fueled

activities to build outposts to further stake out claims. The Spratlys dispute

has been an important factor in the littoral states justifying additional military

spending and the dispute has significant security outcomes on states

without direct sovereignty claims. China is the key player in the dispute and

the most bellicose in its rhetoric and actions. The other claimants and

outside regional players have a distrust of long-term Chinese intentions

which is potentially fueling an arms race. The U.S. has little direct interest

but its continued military presence is viewed as vital to deterring an

aggressive China. Nonetheless, the U.S. probably cannot take an active

interventionist role, either diplomatically or militarily, unless directly invited to

do so by all the involved parties.

 

RECOMMENDATION: That the U.S. maintain its current military levels in

Asia, broadly engage China on security and economic issues in an effort to

influence Beijing in other foreign policy arenas, and work through established

Asian regional bodies to act as an honest broker and to ensure perceptions

over the Spratlys do not get out of hand.

 

Click here to view image

 

 

 

THE SPRATLY ISLANDS: A THREAT TO ASIAN REGIONAL STABILITY

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Until 1988, the area of the South China Sea known as the Spratly

 

Islands was one of the lesser known points of tension in Asia. On 14

 

March, 1988, Vietnamese soldiers confronted a Chinese survey team

 

working at one of the innumerable reefs in the archipelago. Chinese naval

 

vessels loitering nearby sank the assisting Vietnam transport ships.1 This

 

minor incident brought the world's attention to one of the most troublesome,

 

and to some, potentially destabilizing sovereignty issues in the Far East.

 

Until recently, the Spratlys main significance had been their serious

 

hazard to navigation. Their only value, aside from the location near several

 

primary shipping lanes, was limited to commercial fishing and guano

 

phosphate deposits. Formal diplomatic disputes over the area go back to a

 

1933 Chinese protest over France's unilateral annexation.2 The end of the

 

 

______________________

1 "Visiting with Yang Zhiliang," Wen Wei Po (Hong Kong), 6 September 1988, p

2.

2 Despite being a Vietnamese source, an excellent historical examination of

exploration in the South China Sea is found in "The Paracel and Spratly Archipelagos

and International Law" Hanoi VNA in English, 26 April 1988, pp 1-24.

 

 

America's withdraw from Southeast Asia left something of a power void which

 

allowed states like China and Vietnam to advance their interests without

 

potential outside intervention. Moreover, the negative impact of the first oil

 

embargo spurred the South China Sea littoral states to seek new petroleum

 

resources. A single geologic survey conducted in the mid 196Os in conjunction

 

with preliminary efforts to drill in regional coastal waters indicated there might

 

be oil in the Spratlys, hence the sudden interest.3

 

The South China Sea is bordered by states with a long history of endemic

 

conflict, strife, and of recurrent intervention by, and interplay with, non-regional

 

powers.4 During the last 25 years, six countries have laid claim to all or part

 

of the Spratlys: Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

 

Their competing claims encompass political, economic, and strategic concerns,

 

and the dispute has emerged as the new flashpoint in post-Cold War Asia.

 

Furthermore, it has become the focus of growing regional concern about

 

Chinese expansion and provides to some, justification for continued U.S.

 

military presence in Asia.

 

This paper will analyze the premise of the Spratly's sparking the next

 

general Asian war, the role of each claimant, and who is the key to a peaceful

 

resolution of the dispute. It will also examine the effect this issue has on

 

 

____________________

3 Ruan Chongwu, "Hainan Provincial Secretary on Economic Development," Ta

Kung Pao (Hong Kong), 30 August 1993, p 6.

 

4 Ali Alatas, "Managing the Potentials of the South China Sea," The Indonesian

Quarterly, XVIII/2, p 112.

 

 

peaceful resolution of the dispute. It will also examine the effect this issue

 

has on countries without a specific sovereignty claim in the archipelago but,

 

nevertheless, have acute security interests in the South China Sea. It will

 

also discuss how international law has the potential to solve the problem

 

while at the same time be a contributing factor to heightening tensions.

 

Finally, this paper will look at the United States' role in helping resolve the

 

problem and its implications on our strategy in Asia over the next fifteen

 

years.

 

GEOGRAPHY5

 

The Spratly Islands encompass a group of more than 100 coral

 

islands, cays, reefs, and shallow banks scattered over a 100,000 square

 

mile area in the South China Sea. However, the combined total land area is

 

only about one square mile. The largest island, Itu Aba, is only 8 feet high

 

and measures 130Ox450 yards. Typically, the other islands are also low,

 

built up by an accumulation of sand, shingle, boulders, or reef debris on a

 

coral platform. Many reefs and cays emerge at only low tide. The forces of

 

accumulation and erosion are so great that the shape and size of the

 

formations varies significantly from season to season. The environment is

 

generally harsh, the water shallow, and unpredictable bottom changes make

 

___________________

5 The information in the following section has been derived from: K. Wyrtki,

Physical Oceanography of the Southeast Asian Waters, California, Naga Expedition

Report No. 2, Scripps Inst. Oceanography, 1961; and Pub 161, Sailing Directions for

the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand, 4th Edition, 1988, Defense Mapping

Agency, Hydrographic/Topographic Center, Washington D.C., pp 1-13.

 

 

the area hazardous for navigation.

 

The area is under the influence of a tropical monsoon climate,

 

probably the most important geographical factor inhibiting human activity.

 

Typhoons are a major hazard with the period of greatest danger occurring

 

from July through November. The more fragile facilities built on the shallow

 

reefs are susceptible to storm damage with evidence every year of repair

 

work. In fact, at least one naval ship and uncounted fishing vessels have

 

been lost in the Spratlys since 1983.

 

Fresh water exists only on Itu Aba and the outposts that dot the area

 

must be regularly resupplied.6 Summer temperatures regularly exceed 100

 

degrees and the military troops stationed there do little else but observe

 

shipping traffic and fishing boats. It is no suprise that most spend no more

 

than 3 months on station. Almost all naval surface activity halts after July

 

because of the typhoon threat although resupply missions occur year round

 

and are usually timed between typhoons. While scientific and commercial

 

activity follows this pattern, fishermen continually ply the waters.

 

RESOURCES & INTERESTS

 

The most important physical feature of the Spratlys is the possibility

 

of vast oil and natural gas deposits. Areas to the west, southwest, and

 

southeast of the Spratlys have an extensive array of active gas and oil rigs.

 

_________________

6 See Pub 161, Sailing Directions..., pp 1-13 for the geographical constraints;

resupply missions are conducted by naval cargo ships and are regularly noted in the

claimant's respective military press such as China's PLA Pictorial.

 

 

Preliminary geologic surveys done in the late 196Os indicated the Spratlys

 

have the POTENTIAL for hydrocarbon-based resources.7 As the surrounding

 

waters contain lucrative oil and gas deposits, countries have been eager to

 

definitively ascertain just what the Spratlys might hold. This unproven

 

resource potential is the main driving force behind the rush to stake claims

 

and assert control over the archipelago.

 

Aside from the question of gas and oil deposits, the Spratlys are

 

considered important because of their location in the South China Sea.

 

Major shipping lanes from the Far East to the Indian Ocean traverse the

 

Spratlys giving whoever controls them a significant advantage in threatening

 

these sea lines of communication. The sea lanes through the South China

 

Sea are important for energy transport plus regional and international trade;

 

they carry a heavy maritime traffic density. Any such closure would have an

 

immediate impact on states such as Japan and Thailand. That implies

 

countries which have no actual soveriegnty claims still retain significant

 

"interests" in the Spratly Islands.

 

SOVEREIGNTY CLAIMS

 

China (and Taiwan) have by far the most extensive claims and regard

 

the entire South China Sea as their "special preserve". The Chinese base

 

this on historical evidence of discovery and more recently developed

 

 

__________________

7 Ta Kung Pao (Hong Kong), 30 August 1993, p 6; the original survey was done

for the South Vietnamese government by an American firm.

 

 

regularly sent naval vessels to the area during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th

 

Centuries).8 However, the Chinese did not physically occupy any location until

 

the Nationalists moved onto Itu Aba in 1946. In 1988, mainland China

 

established five outposts in the Spratlys and a sixth in March 1995. China's

 

1992 territorial sea law staked out an extreme negotiating position and

 

underscores the importance Beijing places on the Spratlys.9

 

Vietnam has probably been the most physically active in the archipelago

 

over the last 200 years. Hanoi bases its claim on continual presence, the

 

French colonial annexation of 1933, and its present continental shelf limits.

 

Since 1951, when Japan formally renounced its claim and administration of the

 

region under the San Fransisco Peace Treaty, Vietnam continually laid claim to

 

part of the Spratlys. The Hanoi and Saigon governments constructed military

 

outposts on several islands during the 1950s. The process accelerated during

 

the late 1980s so that Vietnam has around 30 occupied sites scattered over

 

much of the archipelago.

 

The Philippines' official claim dates from 1978 and covers a rectangular

 

area extending northeast to southwest. Manila based this decree on its

 

interpretation of the terra nullius principle of international law which maintains

 

that the Spratlys did not legally belong to anyone prior to Japan's occupation

 

 

______________

8 Hanoi VNA in English, 22 April 1988, pp 1-24.

 

9 Robert G. Sutter, East Asia: Disputed Islands and Offshore Claims. Issues for US

Policy, Washington Congressional Research Service, 1992, pp CRS-6-7.

 

 

and that the Philippines was merely occupying abandoned territory.10

 

Therefore, the Philippines could appropriate the area of Japanese occupation.

 

This statement was a fait accompli in 1978 since Manila had been quietly

 

building outposts in the northeast sector of the islands for ten years and

 

currently occupies eight sites.

 

Malaysia initially asserted its claim in 1982 and, like Vietnam, based it

 

on the country's continental shelf extension. By 1986, it occupied three sites

 

in the southern portion of the Spratlys. Brunei claims only one narrow area

 

within Malaysia's claim, also using the rationale of continental shelf extension.

 

INTERNATIONAL LAW AND PERCEPTION

 

Despite repeated assertions of "indisputable sovereignty" by all the

 

countries over their respective claims, no international agreement exists which

 

determines the lawful status of the Spratlys. The United States' policy is that

 

we have no position on the legal merits of the competing claims, see no

 

justification for the use of force, and urges the peaceful settlement of the

 

dispute by all the involved parties.11

 

The current problems in the Spratlys have been further compounded by

 

new development on sea laws.12 The 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention

 

_____________

10 B.A. Hamzah, "Jurisdiction Issues and the Conflicting Claims in the Spratlys,"

The Indonesian Quarterly, XVIII/2, p 142.

 

11 Susumu Awanohara, "Washington's Priorities," Far Eastern Economic Review,

13 August 1992, p 18.

 

12 B.A. Hamzah, p 133.

 

 

The current problems in the Spratlys have been further compounded

 

by new development on sea laws.12 The 1982 UN Law of the Sea

 

Convention (UNCLOS) introduced new concepts such as the 200 nautical

 

mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off a country's coastline and redefined

 

the continental shelf. Therefore, a small speck of island in the middle of an

 

ocean becomes very important as it can expand a state's maritime

 

territory.13 Unilateral proclamations of ownership have led to "creeping

 

annexations" and the current heightened concern over the Spratlys is

 

precisely due to the actions of its rival claimants scrambling to occupy spots

 

in order to enhance their positions once UNCLOS becomes officially part of

 

international law. As of April 1995, two more countries need to ratify

 

UNCLOS before it becomes part of international law. Of the Spratlys rivals,

 

only the Philippines has ratified UNCLOS.14

 

UNCLOS provides for legal adjudication of disputes such as the

 

Spratlys. Furthermore, numerous bilateral agreements have been negotiated

 

worldwide concerning disputed maritime territory which indicates conflict

 

resolution is possible. For that matter, several of the Spratlys claimants

 

already have a number of maritime joint development arrangements in other

 

sea areas (e.g. Malaysia-Philippines, Malaysia-Vietnam, and Philippines-

 

___________

12 B.A. Hamzah, p 133.

 

13 Ibid., p 143.

 

14 Naval War College--Oceans Law and Policy Department, Maritime Claims

Reference Manual, Newport, Rhode Island, 1990 with yearly updates, p 2/352.

 

 

Vietnam) suggesting the political will exists to enter into such

 

agreements.16 However, because the Spratlys are a multilateral problem

 

and several parties have staked out hardline negotiating positions, no easy

 

answer exists. Vietnam and the Philippines have expressed interest in a

 

multinational approach to the Spratlys and would negotiate any sovereignty

 

issues.18 However, China and Malaysia prefer a series of bilateral

 

agreements with parties whose claims overlap their own. China is

 

particularly sensitive about sovereignty stating that it is a non-negotiable

 

issue but that Beijing favors "joint economic exploitation" with other

 

states.17 That is why the rival claimants are loathe to begin formal

 

negotiations with China since, in their minds, Beijing would see that as an

 

implicit recognition of its vast claim. Again, the competing states are

 

maneuvering for long term advantages if forced to defend their claims in a

 

legal world forum or while courting public opinion.

 

U.S. INVOLVEMENT

 

At face value, the Spratlys should not greatly involve the United

 

States. Nonetheless, an outright war over the Spratlys could provoke a

 

divisive domestic argument over its effect on regional stability and how that

 

________________

15 B.A. Hamzah, p 148.

 

16 "Treacherous Shoals," Far East Economic Review, 13 August 1992, p 17.

 

17 For one of many Chinese Foreign Ministry statements which attempt to ease

regional fears about Beijing's intentions in the Spratlys see Qian Qichen, "PRC For

Peaceful Spratlys Talks," Manila The Chronicle, 20 July 1992.

 

 

impacts the United States. However, China's rather grandiose claim could

 

be seen as impairing U.S. freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

 

Generally, the U.S. has always been committed to, and considers freedom of

 

navigation, a vital national interest. Nonetheless, if we could answer the

 

always debatable question of how an event somewhere in the world affects

 

our national security, without another overriding reason for involvement

 

there is probably no need for U.S. diplomatic intervention in the Spratlys at

 

this point.

 

The Philippines dispute that line of reasoning since Manila argues the

 

1951 Defense Treaty with the U.S. puts its claims in the Spratlys under the

 

bilateral security umbrella. Both the Bush and Clinton Administrations have

 

pointedly stated that the agreement only covers territory defined in 1951 and

 

since the Philippines did not "annex" the Spratlys until 1978, the U.S. will

 

do nothing militarily or diplomatically to support Manila's claim.18

 

Nonetheless, should the Philippines make a desperate plea in the middle of a

 

possible future conflict, a U.S. refusal could exacerbate an already strained

 

relationship.

 

A development which might impact U.S. interests in the area began in

 

 

_________________

18 Far East Economic Review, 13 August 1992, p 17; for an overview of China's

first new outpost in the Spratlys since 1988 see William Branigin, "China Takes Over

Philippine-Claimed Area of Disputed Island Group", The Washington Post, 11 February

1995, p A18; although China received the most publicity about its new site on

Mischief Reef, Vietnam has built around six additional outposts in the Spratlys since

1990.

 

 

1992 when China hired the Crestone Oil Company of Denver to conduct

 

surveys and eventual test drilling in an area southwest of the main Spratly

 

section.19 The site carefully avoids existing Vietnamese and Malaysian oil

 

concession tracts that adjoin the Spratlys. Nevertheless, the chosen area

 

was a direct affront to Vietnam for two reasons: (1) China could have picked

 

other spots in the disputed area instead of one in which only Hanoi and

 

Beijing have overlapping claims, and (2) Vietnam considers the area as part

 

of its continental shelf, therefore, within its EEZ and not subject to

 

negotiation. Furthermore, Vietnam has four military outposts in the specific

 

area, the only claimant actually garrisoning the extreme southwest portion of

 

the Spratlys.20 A China aggresively focused on Vietnam, until recently

 

Beijing's pattern of operations in the Spratlys, might also undercut the recent

 

opening of US-Vietnam economic relations.

 

Since the granting of the oil concession, China has conducted some

 

hydrographic surveys while Crestone studied existing data. Tensions flared

 

in 1994 when some Vietnamese vessels attempted to cut tow cables on a

 

Chinese research ship operating in the concession tract. No one fired shots

 

_____________________

19 Ibid., p 16; China is not alone in hiring U.S. oil firms to conduct research and

survey work in the South China sea, Vietnam hired Mobil Oil Company in 1994 to help

develop a possible oil field outside of the Spratlys proper but still within China's claim

area, while the Philippines has followed suit; a Vietnamese survey ship had its cables

cut by Chinese naval vessels in 1994 while operating in the area, one of the rare times

the navy ventures outside of the Spratlys.

 

20 CIA, Directorate for Intelligence, The Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands,

Washington, CIA, 1992, Maps 801947-49.

 

 

but the usual flurry of hyperbolic diplomatic statements ensued. The activity

 

might only be a precursor to what could happen when Crestone, operating

 

from Chinese survey ships and protected by the Chinese Navy, begins onsite

 

work scheduled for sometime after 1994.21

 

In fact, Vietnamese military capability in the face of determined

 

Chinese presence is minimal. Its navy is no match for China's and while it

 

regularly conducts overwater flights with strike aircraft, by the end of 1995,

 

Beijing will have aerial refuelable fighters based from the Paracel Islands that

 

would be more than a match for Vietnam's. So while U.S. civilians might be

 

in the middle of a potentially ugly diplomatic dispute, it is doubtful that they

 

will actually be in harm's way. Therefore, the US will probably not commit

 

forces in the Spratly Islands despite the doom and gloom predictions from

 

the shrill Asian press.

 

THE THREAT AND IMPLICATIONS

 

Nonetheless, a very real threat exists to long-term U.S. interests in

 

Asia that go beyond just concern for freedom of navigation in the South

 

China Sea or a possible involvement resulting from a mistaken application of

 

 

______________________

21 Letter from Crestone Energy Corporation, Denver Colorado, to United States

Department of State/Bureau of Asian and Pacific Affairs, 7 July 1992; all of

Crestone's work to date has been studying existing data; although not published, it

is assumed that similar work is being done for Vietnam and the Philippines by other

U.S. companies involved in the search for oil in and around the Spratlys.

 

 

armed force in our "overextended global cop" role.22 Since the real

 

scramble for outposts and the diplomatic maneuvering began in earnest in

 

1986, many countries used the Spratlys dispute as a reason to increase

 

military spending. The net result is a potential spiraling Asian arms race

 

which is the real problem facing the US.

 

Countries like Vietnam and the Philipines are in no position to increase

 

military spending because of their shaky economies, although both have

 

shifted existing funds to expand or improve Spratlys facilities. Malaysia has

 

increased its military spending especially with highly visible foreign

 

purchases like the Mig-29/FULCRUM and FA-18/HORNET. However, the

 

biggest military spenders are China and Taiwan.

 

Most analysts agree that the Spratlys are a key reason for the robust

 

growth in Chinese naval construction this decade.23 Furthermore, key

 

Chinese research and development programs, namely aerial refueling and

 

surface-to-surface missile-equipped strike aircraft, are aimed specifically at

 

projecting power in the South China Sea.24 Taiwan's military spending also

 

includes added emphasis on high performance aircraft and blue water naval

 

 

_____________________

22 Karl W. Eikenberry, "Does China Threaten Asia-Pacific Regional Stability,"

Parameters, Vol. XXV No 1, p 98.

 

23 Abby Tan, "Manila Sends Force to Confront China," The Christian Science

Monitor, 16 February 1995, p 6.

 

24 Far East Economic Review, 13 August 1992, p 16; the navy has even

constructed special purpose supply ships dedicated to operations in the South China

Sea.

 

 

ships. Combined, the two Chinas will have an overwhelming military

 

advantage in the South China Sea by the end of 1995. That gap is expected

 

to grow during the next 20 years. So, should China opt for a military

 

solution to its dispute over the Spratlys, no regional navy could contest it.

 

JAPAN'S INTEREST AS A NON-CLAIMANT

 

As mentioned earlier, Japan has the most to lose from an imbroglio in

 

the South China Sea which closes or makes it unsafe for maritime traffic.

 

More than ninety percent of Japan's oil imports move through this region

 

and the embargo of 1973-1974 revealed Tokyo's vulnerability and its

 

dependence on the sea-lanes in the South China Sea.25 A general regional

 

concern about Beijing's military modernization and a perception of a

 

shrinking U.S. military presence, could induce Japan to increase its military

 

spending to protect its national interests, in this case a vital trade route to

 

South Asia and Europe. The parallels to pre-World War II Japanese war

 

plans and concerns for sea lines of communications are not lost on others in

 

the region.

 

Although most of the population of Asian countries who suffered at

 

the hands of Japan were not born in 1945, distrust of Tokyo is perpetuated

 

since its wartime activities remain part of the peoples' collective

 

 

__________________

25George A. Coquia, "Navigation, Communication and Shipping in the South China

Sea," The Indonesian Quarterly, XVIII/2, p 165.

 

 

consciousness.26 Therefore, Japan's neighbors fear any major

 

improvement in its military capability or spending levels. Should Tokyo

 

adopt an approach which is perceived as outside the dual standard of being

 

defensive in nature and under the aegis of the security arrangement with the

 

U.S., it might cause countries like China, South Korea, and Malaysia to

 

refocus their efforts on military programs beyond even their current

 

accelerated pace. For example, South Korean military planners privately

 

indicate that their ongoing diesel attack submarine program is not aimed at a

 

North Korean threat but designed to respond to "regional" powers, namely

 

Japan.27 That kind of thinking has unsettling strategic implications for the

 

U.S. in a region we see as key to our future economic prosperity.

 

CHINA'S ROLE

 

China is the key player in the Spratlys dispute. Without its recent and

 

active involvement, the diplomatic tone of the dispute undoubtedly would

 

have been less harsh. Actions like those in early 1995 involving the

 

construction of another permament outpost in a Philippine-claimed section of

 

the Spratlys only fuel regional distrust of long-term Chinese intentions.28

 

Furthermore, none of the other claims significantly overlapped as to prevent

 

_________________

26Joseph N. Flanz, "Japan's Role in the Asia-Pacific Region in the 21st Century,"

National Institute for Defense Studies, 25 May 1987, pp 22-24.

 

27 Author's conversations with Republic of Korea naval officers in Seoul, May

1992, August 1993.

 

28 Cameron Barr and Sheila Taft, "Uneasy Silence Hangs Over China's Grab," The

Christian Science Monitor, 17 March 1995, p 6.

 

 

easier resolution through peaceful negotiations. Beijing has not been

 

hesitant to use the military beyond its borders in pursuit of its foreign policy

 

objectives.29 Combined with an overwhelming military capability, one can

 

see the potential flashpoint for conflict or the fear that potential engenders.

 

But would China actually take that route? At least in public, no.

 

Foreign Minister Qian Qichen repeatedly stated over the last 4 years that

 

China will not use force to exercise its sovereingty claim in the South China

 

Sea.30 Furthermore, Beijing has participated in 4 Indonesian-hosted

 

conferences on managing conflict in the disputed area and has signed on for

 

numerous confidence-building measures such as joint search and rescue

 

operations, anti-pollution controls, and limited scientific cooperation.31

 

A stronger argument against an adventuristic China is its broader

 

economic and political goals. Beijing's number one priority is developing its

 

economy. Chinese leaders see military activity as diverting investment from

 

the economy and despite an increase in military spending, China still lags

 

behind Japan and South Korea in terms of total dollars spent. Also, an

 

armed confrontation would only upset markets for Chinese products and

_________________

29 Karl W. Eikenberry, p 95.

 

30 Qian Qichen, "China Never Seeks Hegemony" (address to the ASEAN Foreign

Ministers' Meeting of 23 July 1993), Beijing Review, 2-8 August 1993, pp 9-12.

 

31 The Indonesian-hosted conferences do not have "official" attendees by any of

the claimants so no signed agreements are binding; nonetheless, the meetings have

proven to be the best approach for getting the rivals to the table and find common

ground on fairly innocuous topics; for such an agreement see "Spratlys Working Group

Agrees on Spheres of Cooperation," Hong Kong AFP, 6 July 1993.

 

 

worse, could reduce foreign investment in the country. In the political arena,

 

Beijing would lose most of the diplomatic capital painfully gained over the

 

last five years in the aftermath of the Tianennmen crackdown. After a

 

generation of suspicion resulting from Beijing's sponsorship of communist

 

insurgencies, states like Malaysia and Indonesia have normalized relations

 

with China. Furthermore, staunchly anti-communist South Korea now has

 

diplomatic relations with China and is a growing economic partner. Should

 

Beijing initiate hostilities over the Spratlys against even a relative political

 

outsider like Vietnam, the rest of Asia, particularly other Spratly claimants,

 

would most likely take strong diplomatic and economic action. Beijing's

 

leaders see regional stability as the key in developing its economy and will

 

do nothing to seriously undermine that aim.32 Therefore, given its still

 

limited resources, China will be inclined to work strategically within world

 

systems to settle regional problems rather than sacrifice its investment in

 

future credibility for immediate but small payoffs.33 Or so goes the

 

argument.

 

In fact, U.S. analysts, while generally conceding that China will

 

probably not take military action this decade, are split as to Beijing's long

 

term intentions. One school, composed of the odd grouping of extreme right

 

 

___________

32" Situation in the Spratlys and China's Stand," Wen Wei Po (Hong Kong), 18 July

1992, p 2.

 

33 Karl W. Eikenberry, p 96.

 

 

wing anti-Chinese analysts and generally liberal ones interested in human

 

rights and arms control, see the South China Sea as the spark for the next

 

great Asian war with China as the initiator.34 The other school, of which

 

am a part, sees China as too preoccupied with domestic economic

 

development and will not divert enough investment to a make its military

 

capable of keeping every Asian country out of the South China Sea while

 

turning it into a Chinese lake. The occasional saber rattling will continue but

 

only to give notice of unflagging Chinese resolve.

 

A Chinese military solution is probably not necessary in the near future

 

when its long term advantages will only grow. As mentioned, China is

 

already the preeminent power in the South China Sea and the gap with the

 

rest of the littoral states will increase with time, mainly because a robust

 

Chinese economy will better support the kind of military spending needed to

 

develop progams capable of meaningful power projection. Therefore, China

 

will most likely get what it wants, a tacit acknowledgement of its

 

"ownership" while everyone goes about business as usual. Sometime in the

 

next decade it can then meaningfully negotiate from a position of

 

overwhelming military, political, and economic strength.

 

As Beijing's first generation of communist leaders fade from the

 

scene, the next group which does not carry the burdens of supporting

 

foreign communist movements or the Tienenmen massacre, will have a

 

______________

34 Susumu Awanohara, p 18.

 

 

certain amount of "enhanced legitimacy". Furthermore, if Beijing can

 

effectively assimilate Hong Kong after 1997, its international prestige would

 

only increase. Therefore, no one doubts China's explosive economic growth

 

and steady if unspectacular military modernization would significantly

 

complement a more cosmopolitan political leadership. Such a combination

 

could achieve China's goals in the South China Sea by eschewing military

 

force for hard-nosed negoatiation in which the other parties have little choice

 

but to acquiesce.

 

RECOMENDATlONS FOR U.S. POLICY

 

What can the U.S. do over the next 10 years to ensure freedom of

 

navigation in the area, minimize the chances of large scale military action,

 

and see a final resolution to the issue? The first would be to maintain our

 

present military force levels in the Far East. Virtually every country in the

 

region, including China, acknowledges that the U.S., through its explicit

 

commitment to a broad engagement in the affairs of the region during the

 

Cold War, became an indispensable factor in the security pattern of the

 

area.36 Nonetheless, China has stated that it does not want "outside

 

interference" in the Spratlys issue which is mainly a statement that it does

 

not want an active U.S. diplomatic involvement in the dispute at this point.

 

 

_______________

36 Pan Zhenqing, "Future Security Needs of the Asian-Pacific Area and their

Implications for the U.S. Defense Policy," paper presented at the 1993 National

Defense University and Pacific Command Symposium, Honolulu, Hawaii, 4 March

1993, p 16.

 

 

Certainly the rest of Asia sees the U.S. military presence as deterring Beijing

 

from immediate aggresive military activity and keeping a lid on a resurgent

 

militant Japan in the long term.36 Even the Chinese military acknowldeges

 

that the U.S. will continue in the future to be an important factor in the

 

maintenance of Asia-Pacific regional stability.37 This general attitude

 

suggests that America's role as an honest broker or balancer of security

 

interests in the region did not necessarily end with the Cold War.38 Also,

 

the U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation in the region will also

 

effectively thwart any Chinese military activity aimed at enforcing its vast

 

claim. Overlapping economic zones among the littoral states could be

 

another issue but that does not impact on U.S. long term interests relative to

 

a spiraling Asian arms race. Therefore, U.S. military presence should be

 

visible and at current levels while we make a clear commitment to keeping

 

the sea lines of communications open to international traffic. Additional

 

involvement, short of a request by each of the concerned parties (extremely

 

unlikely), would only alienate many Asian states as well as some of the

 

American public.

 

Nonetheless, regional perception is one of the most important factors

 

__________________

38 Interview with Robert Ohgren, Senior Japan Analyst, U.S. Department of

Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the J2, in Washington, D.C., 30 March 1995.

 

37 Tian Xinjian, "Dongya Anquande Fenxi Yu Zhanwang," Zhanlue Yu Guanli

(Beijing), November 1993, p 22.

 

38 Karl W. Eikenberry, p 90.

 

 

driving the Spratlys issue. While all the claimants take a low-key approach

 

behind the scenes and at the unofficial level, in public they can be quite

 

verbose. Furthermore, the Asian press has been hyping the issue non-stop

 

for three years. Over time, this perception, real or otherwise, could begin to

 

influence policy in such a way that causes states to respond in kind. This is

 

precisely the issue that alarms many observers concerning an Asian arms

 

race. Therefore, the U.S. should work bilaterally and through regional

 

forums, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to ensure that

 

everyone does not overreact in the South China Sea.

 

Finally, since China is the key player in the dispute, the U.S. should

 

continue its recent efforts to increase economic and security ties with China.

 

That process suffered a setback after Tiananemen and has always been

 

subject to critisism from across the political spectrum domestically.

 

Nonetheless, the U.S. stands to gain from a China which is interdependent

 

on the international economic system.39 An increase in our security

 

relationship could also further military transparency which might increase our

 

ability to influence the all-important perception issue among Asian countries

 

willing to see the worst in everything China does. Therefore, a U.S. broadly

 

engaged with China on economic and security issues might be our best

 

leverage with Beijing's leaders should a diplomatic crisis erupt over the

 

Spratlys.

 

 

____________

39 Ibid., p 98.

 

 

Such an approach is somewhat alien to the traditional U.S. approach

 

to policymaking since World War II. However, indirect diplomatic

 

involvement could achieve U.S. goals, namely a peaceful resolution to the

 

dispute without the pitfalls we encounter when taking unilateral action at the

 

diplomatic level. Broad engagement at every level with all the concerned

 

parties without specifically targeting the Spratlys would probably alienate

 

fewer states while sending a reassuring message about America's unflagging

 

commitment to Asian security. Such an approach is better able to cope with

 

unforseen events and promotes stability in the region.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

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Honolulu, Hawaii, 4 March 1993.



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