On the eve of the annual Association of South East Asian Nations
(ASEAN) summit this week, an old issue has resurfaced: conflicting
claims over the Spratly Islands. The issue is back in the news for
good reason; it never really went away.
According to press reports, last week the Chinese vice foreign
minister summoned the charge d' affaires from the Philippines
embassy to register a "stern protest" over a new Philippines' law
formally staking claim to what it calls the "Kalayaan Islands." The
Chinese, of course, contend that they hold, in the words of the
foreign ministry, "indisputable sovereignty over these islands and
their adjacent waters."
China's Unreasonable Claim
There is nothing simple about this dispute. Taiwan and Vietnam
claim all of the Spratly Islands. And the specific Bruneian and
Malaysian claims overlap those of the Philippines. But it is the
Chinese claim--because of its aggressive scope, the history behind
it, and China's growing military capacity to back it up--that pose
the real problem to regional stability.
The Chinese claim is expansive, to say the least. The Kalayaan
Islands are 1,000 nautical miles away from China. By contrast, the
Philippines' province of Palawan is roughly 230 miles away.
(Incidentally, the Kalayaans are a municipality of Palawan.) Yet
China also claims territory even closer to Palawan Island: Mischief
Reef, the source of so much diplomatic scuffling 10 years ago, is
only 135 miles away.
The distance between China and the territory it is claiming is
apparently of no concern to Beijing. Indeed, the Chinese claim not
only the Spratlys but 80 percent of the South China Sea. In support
of such a massive claim, the Chinese reference 2,000-year-old maps
and an imaginative reading of the Law of the Sea Treaty.
Critically, the claim is passively supported by China's growing
military prowess (double-digit annual growth in military spending
and an expanding fleet of sophisticated warships and submarines)
and what increasingly appears to be deliberate ambiguity about the
intentions behind this buildup.
Highlighting Chinese Ambitions
The Philippines has done the world a great favor by reminding it
of Chinese ambitions. The dispute over the South China Sea flared
in the mid-to-late 1990s as a result of Chinese efforts to
physically fortify their claim to Mischief Reef. Although initially
alarmed by China's moves, by 2002 ASEAN was heralding a new era
that would essentially set sovereign disputes aside and focus
instead on mutual development. This is ASEAN's comfort zone; they
were pleased to paper over the problem. But the excessive Chinese
claim on the territory of their member states was never withdrawn.
And neither were the structures on Mischief Reef that precipitated
The Congress and President of the Philippines are staking their
claim to the Spratly Islands without apology. They appear prepared
to weather Chinese protests. Indeed, there is no cause for them to
capitulate. As is, choosing among several draft bills asserting
their claim and political pressure to be aggressive, the
Philippines settled on a course that was the least objectionable to
This is a diplomatic problem. The possibility that this dispute
could escalate to a point where the U.S. could be called to invoke
its treaty obligations to the Philippines is remote. It did not
reach that point in the mid-1990s--a much more contentious
environment than today. But the risk of serious conflict only
increases with time.
American Support Needed
One of the greatest values of American security treaties in
peacetime, in this case the U.S.-Philippines 1951 Mutual Defense
Treaty, is that they clearly show where American loyalties lie.
The United States should unequivocally support the right of the
Philippines to stake its claims in the South China Sea. It should
also bring attention to the responsible, deliberative, legal nature
of its claims. And although it cannot support any party's
particular claim, the U.S. can certainly point out the aggressive,
unreasonable nature of the Chinese claim. All legalities aside, at
some level, any claim to territory should have to pass a common
sense test. Claiming sovereignty over 648,000 square miles of sea
bordering on eight countries is absolutely untenable. And the U.S.
ought to say so.
Ultimately, the U.S. cannot remain neutral in a dispute between
an ally and its competition for regional influence--China. If an
alliance does not at least mean dispensing with neutrality in
choosing your friends, then what does it mean? Playing on the
ambiguities in the American position and on weaknesses plaguing
perceptions of its commitment to the region, the Chinese are
content to slowly turn up the heat on the South China Sea. Silence
abets their aspirations.
The Spratly Islands dispute is not just the Philippines'
problem. It is an even bigger problem for the United States and all
who rely on American leadership in the Asia Pacific. Left
unchallenged, the Chinese claim to the South China Sea could one
day leave the American Pacific Fleet asking Chinese permission to
conduct routine operations. If the Chinese claims calcify at a pace
similar to the development of their navy, in another 10 years, the
U.S. will have a real crisis on its hands.
Walter Lohman is Director of The
Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.