Monday, July 05, 2004

Spratly Island Getaway 

[Cross-posted on The Head Heeb]

As Jonathan Edelstein and I have pointed out before (1,2,3,4), the multi-state dispute over ownership of the Spratly Islands and their potential oil and gas riches is both deadly serious and entertainingly bizarre. According to the Manila Standard, a high-level meeting of (most of) the claimant nations last month resulted in an agreement to chat again at the ASEAN + 3 meetings just held in Jakarta. The result? An agreement in principle to set up a working group under ASEAN auspices featuring all claimants except Taiwan. We'll see if this proposal goes anywhere.

In the meantime, here's a good rundown of the latest news:
Recent events confirm that maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain an issue for East Asian governments. Ownership of the Spratly Islands is claimed, in whole or in part, by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
In the first quarter of 2004 alone, the claimants took turns building up anxiety, raising concerns about the sustainability of the status quo and whether the 2002 Delaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea could ensure the claimants' self-restraint.

First came the Philippines' announcement of the Balikatan exercises with the United States in the South China Sea in February. The Philippine action appeared to be driven by Manila's growing uneasiness over an increasing number of visits by Chinese research vessels and warships in the Spratly Islands, as well as the sudden appearance of new Chinese markers on the unoccupied reefs late last year. The mounting tension did not dissipate until Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assured the region that the military exercises did not have anything to do with the maritime territorial disputes.

Then came Taiwan's turn. On March 23, a Taiwanese speedboat carrying eight individuals landed and carried out the swift construction of a makeshift "bird-watching stand" on the Ban Than Reef. Vietnam strongly condemned Taiwan's move and demanded an end to the construction activities. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Dung branded Taiwan's handiwork "an act of land-grabbing expansion that seriously violated Vietnam's territorial sovereignty" and warned of possible consequences from Taiwan's "adventurism."

Taiwan's action didn't go unanswered. Two days after the Ban Than Reef incident, Vietnam reaffirmed its sovereignty over the Truong Sa (Spratly) and the Hoang Sa (Paracel) atolls by announcing that it would hold the inaugural tourist boat trip to the contested islands. China decided to conduct a Navy drill in the South China Sea on April 12, sending signals to the other claimants to back off.

The Chinese display of naval capability in the South China Sea didn't stop Vietnam. Unfazed, Hanoi gave its white navy ship HQ988 the go signal to sail for the atolls with about 60 tourists and 40 officials on April 19. Many saw the controversial eight-day round trip as the beginning of more Vietnamese tourism activities in the area -- a development that follows the Malaysian lead of a few years ago.
The author of the piece excerpted above thinks that the problems won't be resolved without some kind of outside intermediary. Perhaps this is an area the US or Japan should be pressing to address formally at the next APEC meeting.

In the meantime, here's more on the silly posturing associated with the Spratlys:

As reported above, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines has sought to reassure the other claimant states about her country's intentions for the Spratlys. This has not been a universally popular move among her constituency, and one group has actually launched a lawsuit claiming that her statement amounted to treason.

Vietnam is now offering free internet access at its military outpost on the islands [no free link available].

Finally, a travel website from the Philippines has documented a private trip to the Spratlys, in case you're thinking of going. Unfortunately, the reporting is, well, not terribly focused on the geopolitical. Here's an example of what to expect:
We were surrounded by the open sea and it was a very strange feeling knowing that we were all alone in the middle of South China Sea indicated on the map classified as dangerous grounds. Guests began going up the sun deck to enjoy the sea wind and the view as the sun was going down. Somebody started making margaritas and I opened a can of San Miguel beer. The crowd began to gather and people were introduced to each other by friends. Most of the guests were divers and some were into fishing. Bottles of wine were opened and toasts were made. Dinner was served with a lechon (roasted pig) as the main dish. A couple of broiled barracudas were also served with green salad on the side. Two more cans of beer and I was ready to go to bed. It was then that I found out that there is a big difference in drinking on a ship and on land. You get drunk faster on a ship because of the continuous rocking motion under you. Everyone walks the same way on the ship with alcohol or no alcohol.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com Referrers: