The Spratly Islands: A Threat To Asian Regional Stability
SUBJECT AREA - Foreign Policy
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
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.
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THE SPRATLY ISLANDS: A THREAT TO ASIAN REGIONAL STABILITY
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 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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Indonesian Quarterly, XVIII/2,.
Susumu Awanohara, "Washington's Priorities," Far Eastern Economic
Review, 13 August 1992.
Cameron Barr and Sheila Taft, "Uneasy Silence Hangs Over China's Grab,"
The Christian Science Monitor, 17 March 1995.
William Branigin, "China Takes Over Philippine-Claimed Area of Disputed
Island Group," The Washington Post, 11 February 1995.
Ruan Chongwu, "Hainan Provincial Secretary on Economic Development," Ta
Kung Pao (Hong Kong), 30 August 1993.
CIA, Directorate for Intelligence, The Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands,
Washington, CIA, 1992, Maps 801947-49.
George A. Coquia, "Navigation, Communication and Shipping in the South
China Sea," The Indonesian Quarterly, XVIII/2.
Karl W. Eikenberry, "Does China Threaten Asia-Pacific Regional Stability,"
Parameters, Vol XXV No 1.
Joseph N. Flanz, "Japan's Role in the Asia-Pacific Region in the 21st
Century," National Institute for Defense Studies, 25 May 1987.
B.A. Hamzah, "Jurisdiction Issues and the Conflicting Claims in the
Spratlys," The Indonesian Quarterly, XVIII/2.
Hanoi VNA in English, "The Paracel and Spratly Archipelagos and
International Law," 22 April 1988.
Naval War College--Oceans Law and Policy Department, Maritime Claims
Reference Manual, Newport, Rhode Island, 1990 with yearly updates.
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.
Qian Qichen, "China Never Seeks Hegemony" Beijing Review, 2-8 August
Qian Qichen, "PRC For Peaceful Spratlys Talks," Manila The Chronicle, 20
Robert G. Sutter, East Asia: Disputed Islands and Offshore Claims. Issues for
US Policy, Washington Congressional Research Service, 1992.
Abby Tan, "Manila Sends Force to Confront China," The Christian Science
Monitor, 16 February 1995.
K. Wyrtki, Physical Oceanography of the Southeast Asian Waters, California,
Naga Expedition Report No. 2, Scripps Inst. Oceanography, 1961.
Tian Xinjian, "Dongya Anquande Fenxi Yu Zhanwang," Zhanlue Yu Guanli
(Beijing), November 1993.
Pan Zhenqiang, "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.
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