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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

Robin Moyer for TIME
Aerial view of Mischief Reef, where China is setting up structures for its 'fishermen'
SPRATLY ISLANDS: China Flexes Its Muscle, 1994
Naval Power Play Sets Off Alarms

The Chinese character for the word "crisis" combines the ideographs for "danger" and "opportunity." That's an apt approximation of how many Southeast Asians regard China.

The People's Republic is at once friend and potential foe. Its economic gravity pulls the rest of the region into a trade network that we all depend on. On the other hand, China's huge population, awesome military power and bizarre political idiosyncrasies are such a potent combination that the country leaves the rest of the region perpetually perturbed. The "Sleeping Dragon" keeps the rest of us awake.

A critical test of China's intentions lies in the Spratly Islands, set in the common lake and maritime highway that is inconveniently (for us) named the South China Sea. It's an unlikely flashpoint. There are no armies eyeballing each other across barbed wire. The Spratlys, which China calls Nansha Qundao (literally, Southern Sands Islands), are a collection of coral reefs and shoals spread over a wide area off the Philippine island of Palawan. Its claimants include China (and, separately, Taiwan), the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

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In 1994, China accelerated its claim to the islands, building two concrete structures at Mischief Reef (known as Panganiban to the Filipinos). More recently, China has been building what appears to be a chain of naval facilities and observation posts stretching from the Spratlys to the Paracel Islands. The structures, built along a nearly straight line, appear almost to be a recreation of the Great Wall--this time across China's watery southern frontier. Although Beijing describes the structures as shelters for its fishermen, their strange architecture suggests fortress-like structures.

The anxieties generated by China's presence are magnified by Beijing's claim to historical rights over all of the South China Sea. Although historical-rights claims hold little water in international law, physical occupation does. China seems bent on establishing a military presence in the disputed shoals.

The most concerned rival is the Philippines. The structure at Mischief Reef sits within the economic zone claimed by the Philippines. In escalating but still harmless rhetoric, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado has described the construction as part of a "creeping invasion." It's a risky drama. Although the Philippine military is inferior to China's, Manila has put up a show of resistance. Markers set up by the Chinese navy to guide its ships through the shoals have been used for target practice by the Philippine air force. Twice this year, Philippine naval craft have rammed and sunk Chinese boats encountered in waters claimed by Manila.

Indeed, there is much more at stake in the Spratlys than just a few reefs and shoals that disappear at high tide. They straddle some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. And the determination of South China Sea boundaries will have great consequences in terms of who controls oil, gas and other natural resources in the area.

During the cold war, ironically, China cast a smaller shadow over Southeast Asia. Enmeshed in internal turmoil and constrained by the Western powers behind a "bamboo curtain," China was less menacing. The "Chinese Threat" was nothing more than a rabbit for Southeast Asian despots to pull out of their hats as needed to "justify" domestic repression. In the cold war's aftermath, the region's security configuration has become less predictable. China once loomed as a large but backward economy, but reforms have put it in a position to become a trading superpower. Its army is clumsy but massive--and Beijing makes an occupation of periodically rattling its rusty saber.

Southeast Asians are still intent China-watchers, ever-calculating the tenacity of Beijing's claims over a common sea and the extent to which it would be willing to go to assert itself. China's record on matters of territory and national pride does not induce calm on the part of the smaller countries sitting under the belly of an increasingly prosperous dragon.

Alex Magno is a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines and president of the Foundation for Economic Freedom

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