China 'war threat' in islands dispute

INDONESIA and the Philippines yesterday warned that China may precipitate naval warfare in the South China Sea to defend its claims to sovereignty over the disputed Spratly Islands. At the same time, diplomatic sources in Japan revealed that in the past 15 months China has been routinely firing at Japanese ships that approach the Senkaku chain, another set of disputed islands to which Peking has recently renewed its claims.

In a sharp escalation of tension over Chinese expansionist manoeuvres in the region, Ali Alatas, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, warned of 'mutually destructive confrontation in the South China Sea' if the rival claims to the islands were not settled peacefully. And Fidel Ramos, President of the Philippines, said there was an 'urgent necessity to seek a solution . . . lest the unsettled situation lead to perilous developments'.

The two men were speaking at the opening of a week-long meeting in Manila of the six-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). The other four members of Asean are Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Regional security concerns are dominating this year's Asean meeting, because China appears to be preparing to expand its military influence just as US forces prepare to leave Subic Bay, their last big base in South-east Asia, by the end of this year.

'China slept for a long time under a soporific ideology,' said Raul Manglapus, the Philippines Foreign Minister, last week. 'Now it is waking up. China is merely living up to historical expectations that, being such a big country, it would not fail to flex its muscles.'

In February, China passed a law reasserting its sovereignty over, and right to use force to defend, three disputed island groups - the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Senkaku chain. The Spratlys are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Taiwan and Vietnam have claims to the Paracels, and the Senkaku chain is disputed with Taiwan and Japan. The islands themselves are of little interest, but the surrounding seas are thought to have oil reserves.

In May, Peking announced it would co-operate with a US oil company to explore for oil around the Spratlys. Earlier this month the Chinese navy constructed a beacon on one of the islands, drawing protests from Vietnam. In 1988 the Chinese sank three Vietnamese ships off the islands. The building of the beacon also infuriated other South-east Asian countries, because it was timed to coincide with a meeting to discuss joint exploitation of the islands by the rival claimants.

Officially, China denies it has any plans to fill a potential vacuum left by US forces leaving South-east Asia, and says it seeks a peaceful solution to the Spratlys issue. Qian Qichen, China's Foreign Minister, who is in Manila, said 'when conditions are ripe, we can start negotiations'.