Manila cranks up its dispute over Spratlys

FROM STEPHEN VINES

in Manila

The heat has been turned up again in the unexpected and fast-escalating confrontation over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Yesterday the Philippines announced that it will charge the 62 Chinese fishermen detained last Saturday.

They are likely to be charged with illegal possession of explosives, illegal fishing, endangering protected species, and illegal entry to the Philippines.

Meanwhile Taiwan, which claims sovereignty over the islands, along with China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, is to send gunboats to the area.

The Philippines responded quickly by sending more troops to reinforce its bases on the islands, less than 100 miles from the Philippines coast. Philippine forces have also bombed Chinese installations on the island chain while talking to Malaysia about a peaceful settlement.

The Philippines laid a formal claim to the islands in 1978, after their supposed discovery by Tomas Cloma, a Filipino who started using them as a fishing base in 1960. China says that the Spratlys, which are 625 miles from its southern coast, have always been Chinese and known as the Nansha region.

The 230 atolls and reefs which make up the Spratlys are barely inhabitable, indeed some of the "islands" are under water. But they are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and widely believed to be located in an oil-bearing region, although the dispute over their ownership has made it impossible to do any proper exploration.

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