Tensions are rising again in the South China Sea after the Philippines, Malaysia and China took moves to reinforce their claims on a group of potentially oil-rich islands.
China last week dispatched its largest fishery patrol vessel -a converted warship -to what it claims are its exclusive maritime zones covering the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands.
Already, an edgy high-seas encounter between a United States Navy surveillance vessel and Chinese ships last week has heightened tensions in the area.
The deployment of Chinese vessel Yuzheng 311 is expected to further raise the political temperature in the South China Sea.
In Manila, the move is seen as a worrying sign of Beijing flexing its military muscle to other claimants to the islands, especially the Philippines.
One senator, not mincing his words, reportedly called it “gunboat diplomacy”.
But the official response has been carefully understated -reflecting the government’s fear of ruffling economic ties with its powerful neighbour, say analysts.
Last month, the Philippine Congress passed a law defining the archipelago’s baselines to buttress its claims on part of the Spratlys.
The new Philippine law was sharply criticised by China and Vietnam, the other rival claimant to the Spratlys.
The baselines law was passed ahead of a global deadline in May for all countries to make their territorial claims compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China ratified its baselines long ago, as have many countries.
In the Spratlys, the Philippines claims nine islands in the so-called Kalayaan group -these are thought to be particularly rich in fossil fuels -and the Scarborough Shoal near a shipping lane.
China claims all of about 100 Spratly islets, reefs and atolls and says they have belonged to the country since the Han dynasty (206BC to AD220) when the Chinese people named the islands Nansha.
Malaysia also underlined its claim on two Spratly reefs, which prime minister Abdullah Badawi visited earlier this month. The Spratlys are also claimed in whole or in part by Brunei and Taiwan.
To reinforce their claims, most countries contesting the Spratlys have built garrisons and other structures, some are just shacks on stilts sunk into reefs.
The Spratlys have been a regional flashpoint for years, though there have been no deadly encounters for over two decades.
In 2002, Asean and China signed a landmark code of conduct on the Spratlys that effectively defused a potential flashpoint, though it did not offer a resolution to the dispute. The declaration calls on claimants to refrain from any action that could inflame the dispute, including military build-ups and new construction.
“China believes the Philippines contravened the spirit of the declaration that claimants shouldn’t do anything to change the status quo,” said Professor Herman Kraft, an international relations specialist at the University of the Philippines. “But I think this isn’t anything more than
a message,” he added, referring to the dispatch of the patrol vessel by Beijing.
Chinese diplomats in Manila insist the patrol ship’s mission does not violate the declaration. “We sent the vessel to enhance our fishery protection programme and maritime surveillance,” said Ms Hua Ye, the Chinese Embassy”s spokesman.
Philippine officials, quoted in the local media, said the government may consult Asean and the US, with which it has a mutual defence treaty, on how to resolve the bilateral spat with China. But this is a delicate issue.
President Gloria Arroyo has assiduously courted China for trade and investments. Not so many years ago, China barely figured in the Philippine trade statistics, it is now this country’s third biggest trading partner.
Officials yesterday said a Chinese lawmaker has postponed his trip to the Philippines this week, but presidential spokesman Cerge Remonde stressed the decision has “nothing to do with the baselines law”. “Our diplomatic relations with China remain strong,” he told reporters.