By Roman Mamonov
China has unilaterally proclaimed its sovereignty over some of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, putting itself on the brink of a diplomatic war with at least two of its neighbors – Vietnam and the Philippines.
A prefecture-level city named Sansha with a full-fledged government and a population of hardly over 1,000 appeared on one of the disputed islands earlier this month. And just yesterday Beijing unveiled its plans to build a military garrison there.
The latest moves by China make no doubt of its resolve to end the protracted territorial dispute over the Spratlys. The Philippines, infuriated by the news, demanded respect for its interests and announced a military call-up, signaling that it is prepared to stand up for its claims. Vietnam accused Beijing of trampling on the international law.
Yakov Berger, an expert of the Institute of Far-Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, thinks that it’s only the beginning.
“As for the Philippines, after a long-standing dispute over one of the islands, it changed its position and softened its threats to retaliate, which manifested itself in the appointment of a new ambassador to China and the virtual resignation of a pro-American foreign minister, as well as a number of statements issued by the Filipino president. Vietnam, on the contrary, is unwilling to yield to Chinese pressure and firmly dedicated to defending its point. Vietnamese aircraft make frequent flights over the disputed islands. Vietnam is evidently counting on America’s support in its territorial spat with China.”
The Spratly archipelago is mostly reefs and coral atolls scattered between Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia and China’s Hainan province. Only a handful of them are fit for habitation. Beijing has proclaimed Chinese jurisdiction over the Paracel or Xisha Islands.
Brunei too is laying its own claims to part of the Spratlys.
In 1979, China occupied some of the islands during an armed conflict with Vietnam. In 1988, a brief naval conflict erupted.
It is not so much the islands themselves that are really worth all that battle as the potentially oil-and-gas rich sea bottom in that area. In 2007, Vietnamese oil companies announced plans to form a consortium with British Petroleum for the construction of a gas pipeline from the Spratlys to Vietnam’s southern coast through the South China Sea. Beijing vowed to never let it be. In July 2007, a Chinese warship opened fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Sergei Lunyov, a professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), shares his view on the issue:
“The current outburst of tension possibly has to do with increasing pressure on China. What China has done recently enables it to defend more openly what it considers to be its right. I don’t think that any serious crisis will ensue. The problem will be settled some way or another. I don’t foresee any acute phase of the conflict. More likely, China’s neighbors will urge it to resolve the dispute through political means and negotiations.”
So far, the United States, a key regional player, has not gone any further than merely expressing “concern over unilateral steps by China”.