Showdown at Mischief Reef

August 05, 1995

At an Asian foreign ministers' meeting last Sunday, China insisted on sovereignty over all the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters. Yet in the same breath, it proposed joint development by all the claimants. China's neighbors should jump at this. If China meant this in good faith, it is the peaceful way out.

The Spratly Islands are hundreds of uninhabitable reefs and atolls in the South China Sea that were once prized for guano, birds' nests and offshore fish. The lure now is offshore oil.

China and Taiwan, the most distant claimants, claim all the islands and most of the South China seabed. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim some of the islands. Indonesia has a territorial interest in the waters. China is the biggest and most bellicose military power of the lot, which makes its claim in practical terms the best.

China's and Taiwan's claims rest on centuries-old Chinese imperialism. In recent times, fishermen from China, Vietnam and the Philippines visited the Spratlys. France and Japan once claimed them. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and China sponsor oil exploration affected by the claims.

In the early 1970s, South Vietnam pressed France's old claim to the Paracel Islands, which are closer than the Spratlys to Vietnam and China. China ousted South Vietnamese forces from several islands in a brief battle in January 1974. The U.S., cozying up to China, failed to support Saigon. North Vietnam, embroiled in war with South Vietnam, kept silent. For practical purposes, China rules the Paracels, but Vietnam has claims.

The Spratlys are another matter. China, Vietnam and the Philippines have staged occupations of some. China bested the Philippines in a naval demonstration in May over Mischief Reef, which is under water at high tide. When Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the end of July, that commercial club included all the rivals to China. The struggle looms as China versus the rest. The U.S. interest, strictly speaking, is in free rights to navigation, which no claimants threaten. The real U.S. interest is in a peaceful regime for the South China Sea administering undisputed oil leases.

The best route is for a negotiated joint regime for exploitation of the undersea bed. China had that right. But if China -- for domestic reasons -- wants a foreign war against a smaller opponent to rally patriotism, the Spratly Islands beckon. It wasn't called Mischief Reef for nothing.

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