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


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


“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...
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