Reef Wars

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TERRY McCARTHY Puerto PrincesaGeneral Ponciano S. Milena is talking tough. After a late afternoon round of golf on the nine-hole military course beside Puerto Princesa airport on the Philippine island of Palawan, the 55-year-old officer leans back in his chair in the run-down clubhouse, mops his brow with a towel and turns his mind to military matters--specifically the occupation by the Chinese navy of Mischief Reef, 135 nautical miles (250 km) off the coast in the disputed Spratlys chain. We could blast them, if we get the orders, says the general, who plays off a handicap of 21. His fellow officers around the table chuckle supportively. This is the nerve center of the Philippines Western Command, with primary responsibility for national security in the Spratly Islands. A bottle of rum is doing the rounds, and the men are snacking on fried pork chips dipped in vinegar. Across the ninth fairway is the combined might of West Com's air power: two Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters, two F-5 jet fighters and four small spotter planes. Don't threaten me, or I'll shoot, he says in the direction of his not-too-distant Chinese foes, amid more laughter. The Chinese show few signs of being intimidated. Last November a Philippine reconnaissance flight discovered that China--whose nearest land is Hainan Island, just over 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) to the north--was building two concrete fort-like structures on Mischief Reef in the place of what had previously been small wooden structures. The reef is well within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. On Jan. 21 in Manila, the National Security Council was finally convened to discuss this urgent security concern. President Joseph Estrada dozed throughout most of the meeting. That's a political statement of sorts, says a senator who was present at the session. The Chinese, undeterred, continued building what they insisted were fishermens' shelters.

The Philippines--with an air force that can't fly and a navy that can't go out to sea, in the words of Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado--seems powerless to resist the determined advance of China's 2 million-strong military into the Spratlys. Concern is spreading both in Asia and in the U.S. at China's apparent plan to build what could be called a Great Sea Wall across the South China Sea. Mercado says China has occupied nine isles and reefs with permanent structures. If that's not a creeping invasion, I don't know what is.

In mid-February U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley called the new construction on Mischief Reef a potentially provocative unilateral activity and said China should continue discussions directly with the parties involved. Mischief Reef is likely to be on the list of concerns Madeleine Albright brings with her to Beijing this week in talks to pave the way for Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's trip to the U.S. in April. Southeast Asian nations have been slow to confront China publicly, but in private officials say its expansionism is setting a dangerous precedent in the region.

The stakes are high in the scramble for the Spratlys, which are thought to sit atop vast oil reserves. The coral reefs also straddle some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, through which about one quarter of international trade passes. Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims on the Spratlys. But ever since the U.S. was forced by Philippine nationalist sentiment to give up its military bases in that country in 1992, China has accelerated its creeping annexation of the islands, which Beijing baldly claims to be indisputably sovereign territory of China. Mischief Reef--Meijijiao to the Chinese, Panganiban to the Filippinos--is the latest in a string of Chinese acquisitions in the area.

The first country to exercise jurisdiction over the Spratlys was France, operating its navy ships out of Vietnam in the 1930s. The Japanese took over the chain during World War II. At the San Francisco peace conference in 1951, Japan gave up its claim, but no decision was made on who did own the islands. China says it has a historical claim on the Spratlys, dating from the early 15th century, when the Ming dynasty admiral Cheng Ho passed through the islands several times.

But the series of reefs, shoals and tiny islets, most of which are under water at high tide, offer little habitable space, and nobody thought to settle them until their mineral potential started to emerge in the 1960s and '70s. Mischief Reef itself is a doughnut-shaped ring of coral several kilometers in diameter, all of which lies under the surface of the sea. There is a small break that was dynamited by the Chinese navy to allow its ships inside.

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During a flight over the area last week, one gray Chinese navy frigate and a white research vessel could be seen lying at anchor; merchant ships with supplies make the long trip from the Chinese mainland at least twice a month with food, water and building materials. A Chinese flag flies over one of the two concrete structures, which are built on opposite sides of the circular reef, and men came out to watch the plane as it circled low overhead. Each structure has living quarters, a command post with observation tower and water tanks resting on pylons that have been driven into the coral. Behind the larger of the two buildings a flat area is being prepared with landfill; officials in Manila suspect it will be a helicopter landing pad. From the plane, the Philippine pilots picked up radio traffic but could not understand the Chinese being spoken. They said that on more than one occasion the Chinese have fired warning shots from anti-aircraft guns at the approach of Philippine planes.

After several passes the pilots turned back toward Palawan, but on the way they descended to check out another reef, the Sabina Shoal, which is even closer to the Philippines and on which Chinese marker buoys have been found--and blown up--by the navy before. The Chinese have a well-rehearsed routine when laying claim to a new reef: first they put down buoys, then they build concrete markers. Temporary wooden or bamboo shelters follow, and if they are still not challenged, the permanent military forts go up. The Philippines tries to blow up the buoys or the markers before China has time to build and occupy larger structures. We can't demolish the [inhabited] structures because we don't want war in the Spratlys, says presidential spokesman Jerry Barrican.

Beijing denies its military is involved in occupying the reefs and claims the structures are being put up by fishermen. But according to Colonel Horacio Tolentino at Puerto Princesa, many of the alleged Chinese fishermen arrested by the Philippine navy have skin that shows no signs of prolonged exposure to the sun and hands that are innocent of a fisherman's calluses, and they are often dressed in identical track suits. They don't even act like fishermen, he said. None of them are afraid of our military. They just stare them in the face. On one occasion in 1997, China said a hut erected on a reef on Scarborough Shoal, further to the north, was part of an amateur ham-radio venture sponsored by a non-governmental Chinese organization.

In the past china has been prepared to fight when opposed: in 1988 it took six reefs from Vietnam, sinking three Vietnamese ships and killing 77 crewmen. But lately Beijing has proceeded more by stealth, not even protesting when its markers are discovered and blown up. Instead it simply waits for the other side to drop its guard and then creeps forward again. The initial structures on Mischief Reef were built during the monsoon season when the Philippine navy was not patrolling the area.

When Manila complains about Chinese encroachment, Beijing quickly says it is ready to negotiate joint use of the area--what Defense Secretary Mercado has dubbed a talk and take strategy. But the talks are almost predestined to fail, since China's opening position is that the Spratlys are indisputably its sovereign territory.

Blas Ople, head of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee, says the Philippines must assert itself or risk looking as if it has acquiesced to China, meekly turning the other cheek after a slap on the national honor. But despite an outburst of national indignation when the Mischief Reef structures were discovered last November, the issue has all but disappeared from the political agenda in Manila. Senator Rodolfo Biazon, who is overseeing negotiations to establish a Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. that would allow the American navy to dock in the Philippines again, thinks that the return of U.S. ships might slow down the Chinese advance. But the VFA is controversial; Biazon puts its chances of passing the Senate at fifty-fifty.

The sun has gone down over the mountains, the last golfers have come in, and after a long day on the front line of the confrontation with China, General Milena's men are preparing for a party to celebrate their commander's birthday. Already someone has gotten hold of a microphone, and the amplified tones of a familiar song echo across the airfield: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The Chinese would appreciate the sentiment. When the smoke clears, the world may discover that the Great Sea Wall is already in place, and the entire South China Sea has become in fact what Beijing's maps already suggest it is on paper--Chinese territory.

With reporting by Nelly Sindayen/Manila
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