"There is a great deal of sneaking about, putting down concrete markers and blowing up any that are already there," said one official. Submerged rocks can be claimed by driving steel piles into them and erecting a hut on top, with a flag to reinforce one's claim to sovereignty. This is what China did recently at the appropriately -named Mischief Reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines. When the structures were discovered, the Chinese government claimed they had been put up by its coastal authorities to help fishermen in distress.
Manila is not convinced. "Mischief Reef is 126 nautical miles from our nearest island, and 450 nautical miles from mainland China," the Philippines Foreign Secretary, Roberto Romulo, told the Independent on Sunday in London last week. "One of the huts had a parabolic antenna on top. What for? So that the fishermen could watch satellite TV? We believe there is more to this than action by local officials."
His view is shared by the four other nations - Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei - to whom the Spratlys are no joke. After two bloody clashes in 1988 and 1991, when China seized a total of 15 islands from Vietnam, the claimants signed a declaration in Manila in 1992, pledging restraint. Mischief Reef, said Mr Romulo, was the first breach of that agreement. Talks between China and the Philippines are due in Peking today.
The lure of the Spratlys is their position near important shipping lanes and the prospect of vast oil and gas deposits in the surrounding seabed, but the other five believe China is using the islands in a larger strategic game: to justify its development of a blue-water navy capable of projecting power to every part of the South China Sea and beyond.
Last November China bought four diesel submarines from Russia, a month after one of its nuclear submarines was detected near the American aircraft carrier Kittyhawk in the Yellow Sea. The carrier's planes tracked the submarine for three days, prompting China to send jet fighters to the scene. The Los Angeles Times reported that an American military attache was warned at a dinner in Peking that Chinese forces would shoot next time. By then China might have a carrier of its own. Last year its military budget was $6.1bn, a 22 per cent rise on 1993, which, as Mr Romulo put it, "seems to go beyond getting new uniforms". Concern about Chinese intentions is one reason for the arms race which has broken out in south-east Asia, but China's greater strength also appears to be making its neighbours wary of helping the US.
Thailand recently turned down an American request to "pre-position" military equipment in ships, and Mr Romulo said it would be "politically impossible" for the US to reacquire any use of its former bases in the Philippines. Did this reflect south-east Asia's reluctance to offend China? "I don't want to affirm or deny that," he said.