WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As long as the U.S. Navy was based at the Subic Bay in the Philippines, its presence discouraged any of the six countries with territorial claims in the vast South China Sea from pressing them too far.
In the years since the U.S. withdrawal, however, China has made unprecedented claims to exclusive jurisdiction over the strategically located mineral-rich Spratly Islands chain -- to the irritation of Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Tension grew after China undertook a buildup of sea and air power in the region.
Recently this hot spot has gotten hotter still. In February the government of the Philippines destroyed Chinese markers on Mischief Reef. Last month they seized four Chinese ''fishing boats'' with sophisticated communications equipment on board. The governments of the Philippines and China have exchanged terse notes reiterating their determination to assert their sovereign rights.
While war does not appear imminent, it is wholly possible that the long-simmering dispute could burst into a full-scale military encounter with a world-class power involved.
The Spratly Islands have great strategic value -- located as they are astride sea routes through which 25 percent of the world's shipping passes. Huge quantities of oil, gas and other valuable minerals probably lie beneath the surface. And, of course, China's increasing industrial capacity creates expanding needs for fuel, especially gas and oil.
No one knows for certain what China intends. One authority wrote of China's buildup on Woody Island that it ''signals an inclination to dominate the South China Sea by force rather than negotiate shared control with other claimants to the Spratlys.''
But the strategic value of the scattered islands, the increased estimates of their economic value, China's increased military power and its extended claim to the islands do not cast much light on whether the government of China will use force in the effort to establish exclusive control of these islands. How can we know a government's intentions? By watching how it treats its own citizens.
There are compelling strategic reasons to be concerned with human-rights practices of governments. First, because restraint in the use of power in domestic affairs relates to restraint of use of power in dealing with other nations. Tolerance of opposition and respect for the rights of citizens are integrally related to respect for others in international affairs. The demand for a monopoly of power internally is dynamically related to the need for exclusive power outside.
In this violent century we have seen again and again that governments with the worst human-rights records are also the most likely to commit aggression against neighbors, to start wars and to impose their preferred positions on others by force.
Benito Mussolini's treatment of the Italian opposition foreshadowed his treatment of Ethiopia. Adolf Hitler's merciless destruction of Poland was foreshadowed, I believe, by his merciless treatment of Germany's Jews, Gypsies and dissidents of Nazi rule. Joseph Stalin's treatment of the internal opposition told us all we needed to know to predict his later policies toward the Baltic states and the Poles.
The government of Iraq provides a more current example of the use of violence inside and outside a country's borders. The total war waged by Iraq against Kuwait is of a piece with the total war being waged right now against Iraq's own Shi'ite population.
This link between human rights and peace is the same as the link between democracy and peace. Modern democracies do not start aggressive wars, in part because people who must fight the wars are usually less enthusiastic about the risks involved. But also because democracy breeds habits of restraint in the use of power, in dealing with differences and tolerating opposition.
These linkages between a regime's human-rights practices and its foreign policy are empirical and important. That is why we should -- indeed, we must -- take into account persistent human-rights abuses by the Chinese government, if we are trying to predict its actions with regard to the use of force in the South China Sea or elsewhere.
Human-rights groups report China's denial of access to prisons; jamming of Voice of America broadcasts; arrest of religious leaders, of labor and democracy advocates; mistreatment of prisoners; utilization of forced labor. All are relevant to the respect for rights outside as well as inside the country. The fact that China is an authoritarian, one-party state that still denies its citizens basic civil and political liberties must be faced when we think about its intentions in the South China Sea. So must its lack of accountability.
In democracies, governments regularly submit their power to the requirements of law and the principle of consent. Unwillingness of rulers to submit their actions to popular judgments, to share power or tolerate criticism warns us that they may not be willing to share power or negotiate differences in external affairs. The uninhibited use of force against dissidents warns us that the government may use force to impose its will on external challengers as well.
The fate of Tibet cannot be assumed to be irrelevant to the fate of Hong Kong or Taiwan or any other distinctive community that becomes an object of China's ambition and absorption. The fate of the Spratly Islands and the stability of the South China Sea depend largely on the behavior of China. China's treatment of its own people gives one great reason for concern.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.