MANILA – One of the main sources of tension in Asia nowadays are the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and others have conflicting claims. In Chinese media reports, the heightened “unfriendliness” in the region has allegedly arisen from “bad rumors and speculations” on the part of Filipino commentators. But the reality is starker: the intrusions by Chinese aircraft into Filipino airspace in May; Chinese patrol boats cruising in March in the Recto (Reed) Bank, 85 miles west of the Filipino island of Palawan; and, most serious of all, a Chinese missile frigate firing at Filipino fishing boats in February near Palawan’s Quirino atoll.
Will armed conflict result from these recurring – and, it seems, escalating – disputes between the Philippines and Vietnam on one side, and China on the other? War, of course, is in no one’s interest. But the risk posed by these disputes is growing, because China’s relations with both the Philippines and Vietnam are at their lowest point in decades. Given these tensions, it is no surprise that the issue of disputed sovereignty in the South China Sea is almost certain to claim center stage at this month’s ASEAN Regional Forum, and at the East Asia summit in Bali that will follow it.