Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea

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The Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea: Problems, Policies, and Prospects for Diplomatic Accommodation Christopher C. Joyner

INTRODUCTION

he end of the Cold War created a strategic vacuum in the South China Sea. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its departure from Cam Ranh Bay; the closure of United States’ naval bases in the Philippines; and Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia diminished superpower influence in the region. These events also prompted several East Asian littoral governments to re-calculate the strategic and national security implications of sovereignty claims made to islands in the South China Sea. In this regard, the financial turmoil that has whipsawed national economies throughout East Asia since 1998 has undercut the political stability of these same states and, in so doing, contributed to exacerbating tensions over conflicting maritime claims in the area. In 1999 the Spratly Islands dispute reemerged as a security flashpoint in the South China Sea. This most recent flare-up over the Spratlys occurred between China and the Philippines over structures built on the aptly-named Mischief Reef, a tiny land feature known locally as Panganiban and situated within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone as defined by contemporary ocean law.1 Sino–Filipino conflict over Mischief Reef dates back to February 1995, when China built and manned three octagonal structures perched on stilts atop the atoll. Following a three-year hiatus, China resumed construction at Mischief Reef in late October 1998. At least four military supply ships and some 100 workers were involved in the construction operation to lay concrete foundations there.2 These events reignited tensions between China and the Philippines over their

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“Philippines Warns of Increased Chinese Military Acts on Disputed Islands,” Associated Foreign Press (AFP) ASIA, 19 January 1999. See the discussion on the Law of the Sea in the text infra at notes 14–18. 2 Rigoberto Tiglao and Andrew Sherry, “Politics & Policy,” Far Eastern Economic Review (24 December 1998): 18–20.

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The Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea

respective claims to the Spratly Islands. In early 1999, the Chinese completed the construction on Mischief Reef. The five-story, fortified, cement building alongside the three octagonal structures is permanent and is viewed by the Philippines as evidence of China’s intentions to establish military facilities . . . the Spratly Islands dispute . . . in the region. The structure could be remains the most contentious, used for communications, anti-aircraft complex, and volatile of the South guns, and radar systems for monitoring China Sea rivalries. aircraft and ships in the area. Further, this basing occupation of Mischief Reef is seen as part of China’s forward defense and offense strategy to house equipment for guiding cruise missile systems throughout the China Sea.3 Although China insists that the structures on Mischief Reef are intended only to provide shelter for Chinese fishermen in the area, serious suspicions exist among Asian and Western states that the completion of military structures on Mischief Reef foreshadows further Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Recent reports in fact suggest that China might be taking secret steps to occupy the Fiery Cross atoll, another tiny islet claimed by the Philippines.4 Consequently, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest against China for the 1999 intrusion onto Mischief Reef, and has welcomed the participation of the United States and the United Nations in efforts to find a solution to the Spratlys dispute.5 China’s presence on Mischief Reef is also viewed by Manila as threatening the Philippines’ oil exploration activities in the Reed Bank, another part of the Spratlys. Likewise, Mischief Reef occupies a strategic location for listening and observing vessels transitting South China Sea lanes, giving China greater...
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