Competition over the disputed Spratly Islands has not diminished in recent months despite diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing conflict in the South China Sea. The potential for the contested archipelago to become a flashpoint is likely to increase as China's naval strength and its appetite for foreign oil increases.
Vietnam condemned Taiwan for constructing a building on an island in the disputed Spratly archipelago on March 31. Taiwan's edifice on the island in the contested waters of the South China Sea is the latest in a recent series of moves by nations looking to carve out a chunk of the strategically located and potentially oil-rich Spratly chain. Competition for control of the more than 100 tiny islands and reefs and their waters will continue despite an earlier agreement among the nations surrounding the South China Sea to exercise restraint and avoid activities that could cause conflict. The stakes are rising as Chinese naval strength and its appetite for foreign oil increase. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said Taiwan sent personnel from Taiwanese-controlled Ba Binh Island to build a small structure on Ban Than Reef in the northern part of the island chain and claims the action threatens Vietnam's sovereignty and stability in the region. Hanoi formally lodged a complaint with Taipei in November 2003 for driving away Vietnamese fishing boats near the same island. A spokesman for Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said members of Taiwan's Coast Guard were sent to the island to build a simple kiosk for bird observation and that the building is not for military purposes, a story unlikely to gain much credibility. Taiwan, similar to others, has been trying to settle control of the islands in order to bolster its claims on the disputed chain. China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim sovereignty over all the Spratly Islands, while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei only claim some of them. The sovereignty dispute led to a brief naval clash between Vietnam and China in 1988 and remains a constant source of tension. In November 2002, China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to promote stability in the region; in October 2003, China signed a non-aggression treaty with ASEAN. Despite diplomatic attempts to minimize the potential for the contested area turning into a flashpoint, the lure of an estimated 70 billion barrels of oil under the ocean floor — and control of prized sea lanes — is too tempting to prevent nations from encroaching into the archipelago to push and protect their claims. Vietnam recently announced it will send boatloads of tourists to some of the islands in April. The move is Hanoi's latest bid to maintain sovereignty over the islands and it was met with protests from China and the Philippines. The Philippines recently opted for more indirect tactics, and Manila's latest ploy included showing off its renewed security ties with the United States. Part of the 2004 U.S.-Philippine "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises were held on the island of Palawan bordering the Spratly archipelago. The exercise took place amid ongoing speculation about whether the Philippines will be home to a new U.S. military base as Washington repositions its troops in the Pacific. The maneuvers in Palawan served as a reminder to the other five claimants that the world's only superpower is backing the Philippines. Beijing is not mincing words. Rear Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the Chinese fleet in the South China Sea, in early March urged the acceleration of further construction projects on the Spratly Islands and the development of tourism in the archipelago. Wu said this would safeguard Chinese sovereignty and protect national interests. Mildly aggressive comments concerning the Spratly Islands by naval commanders from any of the countries involved are not unusual. Unlike the other the nations who have a dog in the hunt, however, China is rapidly expanding its navy and is increasingly dependant upon energy imports. Sources from Russian military intelligence say Chinese shipbuilding activities have accelerated over the past year, with emphasis on the construction of attack submarines. The new vessels are not expected to be substitutes for further acquisitions from Russia, China's primary source of naval assets, but are expected to complement the future fleet structure. The Chinese navy is expected to receive two nuclear-powered Song-class subs armed with Russian-made cruise missiles by mid-2005. Taiwan's ongoing campaign to achieve full independence and China's rising consumption of foreign oil are likely the impetus behind the country's new urgency to expand its fleet. Beijing wants to achieve naval superiority and intimidate Taiwan. In addition, China has replaced Japan as the world's second largest oil consumer, Beijing needs to protect the sea lanes that allow increasing amounts of oil to its shores. Beijing's plans to quickly build a modern navy might have little to do with the Spratly Islands, but that is little consolation to the other nations bordering the South China Sea. The stronger China's navy is — and the more energy hungry its economy becomes — the more likely that China will be able to use a heavier hand in the dispute over the islands.