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Sunday, February 14, 1999 Published at 12:14 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Analysis: Flashpoint Spratly

China's territorial claim extends well into South East Asia

By News Online's Joe Havely

The disputed territory of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea offers one of the region's major potential flashpoints for the 21st century.

[ image: The islands offer few attractions in themselves]
The islands offer few attractions in themselves
If conflict ever did break out there, no less than six nations could quickly find themselves in the midst of a bruising encounter.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and the superpower of China have all staked overlapping claims in whole or in part around the Spratly region.

All, apart from Brunei, occupy one or more of the islands backed up with military installations and the area is stage to frequent tense stand-offs between the competing parties.

Rich rocks

[ image: War in the Spratlys could have global consequences]
War in the Spratlys could have global consequences
To date the most serious confrontation to take place in the Spratlys occurred in 1988 when Chinese forces evicted a Vietnamese presence on Johnson Reef. Beijing says that archaeological evidence proves the South China Sea was historically Chinese territory.

Now it wants it back.

Most of the islands are low-lying coral reefs and rocky outcrops, home to little more than a few sea birds. Some are so small they disappear at high tide, whilst others provide barely enough space for one person to keep their feet dry.

[ image:  ]
But these islands are more than just dots on a map. Their significance lies in what surrounds them: water or, more specifically, the 250,000 square kilometres (155,000 square miles) of the South China Sea.

Around the islands are some of the world's richest fishing grounds. And underneath the sea bed there are thought to be massive reserves of oil and gas - both are valuable resources for what has been, at least until recently, an expanding, energy-hungry region.

Of significance to the wider world are the vital sea-lanes that traverse the area, transporting oil Middle Eastern oil to Japan and west coast America. Around a quarter of the world's total shipping trade passes through the area every year.

War in the Spratlys could quickly have an impact on the global economy.

War games

[ image: Mischief Reef: Red flag over troubled waters]
Mischief Reef: Red flag over troubled waters
It would also put pressure on the US to intervene, as it has defence guarantees and treaties with a number of the claimants. It would be reluctant to do so.

In 1995 the US naval war college ran a series of computer war games simulating a conflict with China over the South China Sea. In every case Chinese forces won the day.

Strategic analysts view the Spratlys dispute as the result of a so-called power vacuum in post-Cold War East Asia.

Balance of power

[ image: China is engaged in rapid military modernisation]
China is engaged in rapid military modernisation
Throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet navy, based in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, and the US navy at Subic Bay in the Philippines kept the balance of power in the region. But with Soviet military might now defunct and the US naval presence in the region significantly reduced, an increasingly assertive and self-confident China is seen as the country most likely to benefit.

The onset of Asia's economic crisis and the drain this places on the resources of China's smaller southern neighbours also seems to point to Beijing's advantage.

Previously the other five claimants - all of whom are members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) - have been able, at least in diplomatic terms, to take a stand against the might of China. Beijing too had apparently shown a willingness to discuss joint development of the island's resources.

[ image: The region straddles vital sea lanes]
The region straddles vital sea lanes
Now Asean is struggling to put on a united front about anything and says it has "bigger problems to deal with" than the Spratlys.

It may be somewhat less than a coincidence that Beijing has chosen this time to resume construction of what Manila says is a military installation on the aptly named Mischief Reef - an island more than 1,000 km from mainland China but just 300 km from the Philippines.

With China continuing to beef up its armed forces faster than any other country in East Asia, it seems unlikely that Beijing is in any mood to give up its claims.

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13 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Tension rises over Spratly Islands

22 Jan 99 | Asia-Pacific
Trouble brews on Mischief Reef

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Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Spratlys Dispute Timeline

The Spratly Islands Dispute - an overview

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