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.
Last June, I gave the keynote speech at the celebrations marking the 36th anniversary of the establishment of Philippines-China diplomatic relations and the 10th anniversary of Philippines-China “Friendship Day” in the presence of 5,000 of my countrymen and a smattering of Chinese officials. Yet on that same day, the headlines in Chinese papers were blasting the Philippines for its historic claim to ownership of the Spratly Islands.
Of course, the governments of both countries recognize the need to maintain the stability and cooperation that have made East Asia the world’s fastest growing region. The same is true of Vietnam’s government and that of the United States. But there is no institutionalized means to discuss and resolve the dispute, which is taking on greater significance almost daily, owing to the belief that vast mineral and energy resources lay on the sea bed around the Spratlys.