China continues to fortify claims in disputed Spratlys

China continues to fortify its claims in the disputed Spratly Islands, despite overtures to amicably settle overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a highly-classified Philippine military report said Friday.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China are currently working on a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea, but the sides remain at loggerheads over the scope of the proposed agreement, which Southeast Asian and Chinese officials hope to sign in November.

''Beijing continues to resort to unilateral actions to reinforce its claim in the disputed Spratlys archipelago,'' the document, a copy of which was obtained by Kyodo News, says.

It said China has continued to beef up its structures in the Spratlys, apparently to bolster and assert its claims over the entire 1,000-kilometer chain, which is also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

''Notably, China's actions are widely viewed as a double-edge diplomatic strategy aimed at furthering its strategic goals in the region,'' the document says.

It adds, ''This can be gleaned from China's behavior in the South China Sea, wherein when pressured internationally, Beijing uses negotiating tactics to keep neighboring governments hopeful of a peaceful compromise while the Chinese military continues to build up its permanent fortresses in the Spratly Islands.''

In 1995, China built concrete structures with satellite equipment on Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, heightening tensions in the disputed area. The Philippines protested the occupation but to no avail.

Instead, China improved its structures on the reef, the document says. The next year China installed transmission stations on three occupied reefs, including one at Fiery Cross, also a Philippine-claimed reef.

''The new stations (in Fiery Cross) would allow Chinese naval vessels patrolling the South China Sea to receive television transmissions from satellite dishes and allow contact with the ground command at the South China Sea Fleet headquarters at Zhangjiang,'' it says.

In May 2000, the document notes China established the South China Marine Surveillance Force (SSMSF) to protect its rights and to identify marine and aquatic resources in the South China Sea.

''The SSMSF was the former South Sea Division of the China Marine Surveillance Force (CMSF), whose other divisions are the North Sea and East Sea,'' it says. Organized in November 1998, the CMSF's mandate is ''to patrol China's inland seas, territorial waters, continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.''

''Despite denials from Chinese officials, the creation of a surveillance forces in the disputed South China Sea area is apparently an offshoot of constant military activities of the other claimant in the Spratlys,'' it says.

Last year, the document adds, China completed construction of 20-24 naval vessels that could be used to bolster patrol operations in the South China Sea.

''The new class of patrol vessels, which are set for 'imminent operational deployment,' will bear the markings of China's Customs Administration but would be staffed by PLA naval personnel,'' it says, adding ''the customs markings are ostensibly intended to downplay the expansion of China's naval patrol presence in the South China Sea and to protect the PLA Navy in the event of any incidents.''

It says the patrol vessels, about 100 meters long and fitted with ''about 30-mm'' main guns, are substantially larger than those normally used by the customs service. It also says each vessel has a ramp at the stern for handling two high-speed interceptor boats.

''One of the missions of the boats would purportedly be to protect civilian fishing trawlers,'' it said.

Moreover, it says the PLA also conducted last year large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea -- from Hainan Island to the Paracels. Ground, air and naval forces on Hainan as well as units from the mainland participated in the maneuvers, which included amphibious warfare drills on Woody Island in the Paracels.

''The exercises were staged simultaneously with other drills in northern China and in areas facing Taiwan. It must be recalled that in the past, military maneuvers were also conducted on Woody Island, which is a key strategic base for power projection,'' it notes.

At Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which the Philippines also claims outside the Spratlys, ''there has also been a noticeable increase in Chinese intrusions recently.'' Beijing claims it has indisputable sovereignty over the shoal as it is allegedly part of Macclesfield Bank, while the Philippines argues the shoal is well within the country's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

''Doubts persist about China's real intentions in the region,'' the report says. ''Beijing's regional ambitions also continue to worry Southeast Asian governments, particularly in the light of its aggressive military modernization program.''

Indeed, the document says, ''the territorial disputes over the South China Sea have emerged as key external security issue confronting ASEAN and poses the greatest potential flash-point for conflict in Southeast Asia.''

''Beijing's quest for improved power projection capabilities, its assertiveness in pressing maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, and its track record in using force to defend its sovereignty have all stirred apprehensions in Southeast Asia about China's intentions,'' the report says.

It adds, ''Much of the worry reflects an underlying, if often unspoken, fear that Chinese assertiveness foreshadows a China that will become more menacing as power grows.''

The Spratlys straddle vital sea lanes in the South China Sea and are believed to be rich in minerals.

Four of the claimants -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei -- are members of ASEAN, which also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

Asian Political News, July 15, 2002

MANILA, July 12 Kyodo


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