Creeping Assertiveness: China, the Philippines and the South China Sea Dispute

Article excerpt

Introduction

The unresolved territorial disputes between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Philippines in the South China Sea have highlighted emerging trends and raised important issues pertaining to the security and stability of Southeast Asia. The disputes have not only had a significant impact on the shape of Sino-Philippine relations, but also underlined the important roles played by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States in maintaining regional stability. This article identifies and addresses the salient issues raised by the disputes.(1) Firstly, the events of 1995-98 reinforce the notion that China is gradually expanding its presence in the South China Sea and concurrently indicating a willingness to settle the issue diplomatically. Secondly, the lack of a credible defence force has required the Philippines to negotiate with the PRC from a position of weakness, resulting in little concrete progress. Thirdly, during the dispute ASEAN was willing to take a united stand on the issue and indirectly rebuke China. The United States, on the other hand, was unwilling to commit itself to helping the Philippines militarily for fear of damaging its relations with the PRC.

Background

The territorial dispute between China and the Philippines centres around the ownership of about fifty small islands and reefs in the Spratly group in the South China Sea. The Spratly archipelago comprises more than 230 rock formations of varying sizes, the sovereignty of which is disputed by six parties - China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. Three of the disputants (China, Taiwan and Vietnam) claim the entire chain, two (Malaysia and the Philippines) claim only certain parts of the group, whilst Brunei disputes a small part of the territorial waters. The fifty islands claimed by the Philippines are located 230 nautical miles west of Palawan island, and are known to Filipinos as the Kalayaans, a term which will be used throughout this article to distinguish them from the Spratly group as a whole. Sovereignty over the islands is important to the disputants not because of their intrinsic value, but because of the maritime resources which ownership would provide - such as valuable fishing grounds and, as yet, unproven quantities of hydrocarbons (oil and gas).(2)

China bases its claims in the South China Sea (including the Kalayaans) on the grounds of discovery and occupation going back 2,000 years. The PRC demonstrates its claim by reference to maps drawn up during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) which purportedly show the Spratlys as part of its territory, and historical artifacts found on the islands indicating the presence of Chinese fishermen. The Philippine claim is much more recent. In 1956 Filipino national Thomas Cloma laid claim to the Kalayaans, declaring the islands res nullius as Japan had been forced to renounce their ownership at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference.(3) In 1974 Cloma "transferred" sovereignty of the islands to the Philippine Government, and in June 1978 the Kalayaans were declared Philippine territory by presidential decree. According to that decree, the Kalayaans belong to the Philippines "by reason of their proximity".(4) Since 1956 the Philippines has stationed military personnel on eight of the islands.

Prior to 1994, the question of ownership of the Kalayaans had not been a major irritant in Sino-Philippine relations. In April 1988, Philippine President Corazon Aquino made a high-profile trip to the PRC. Although trade issues topped the agenda in her meetings with Chinese officials, Aquino raised the issue of the Kalayaans with China's then paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Deng promised to shelve the sovereignty issue, engage in joint exploration and exploitation of maritime resources, and work towards a peaceful resolution of the issue.(5) In May 1994, the Philippine Department of Energy approved an application made by the U. …