Commentary: The Spratly standoff

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMay 3, 2012 

The heat is rising in Southeast Asia as China and the Philippines are in the third week of a naval standoff in the strategic South China Sea.

Warships, fishing boats and civilian vessels have jousted for position and remain blocked over possession claims to a small shoal near the Spratly Islands.

Although these islands lie 700 miles from China and only 100 miles from the Philippines, China claims what is commonly called “the cows tongue” – a vast swathe of sea shaped like a tongue that reaches close to the shores of the other claimant nations.

China bases its claim on maps dating back 500 years.

Back in 1988 clashes over the Spratlys between China and Vietnam left nearly more than 60 Vietnamese dead.

The United States stands smack in the middle of this tension: it currently has American troops holding war games with the Philippine military. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November made a speech on the deck of a U.S. warship voicing military support for the Philippines.

In addition, when the Philippines fenced in Chinese fishing boats in April, the only large warship it could send was a second-hand U.S. cutter it bought to beef up its underfunded and poorly maintained navy.

Why does the South China Sea matter to the United States and to the six countries claiming that body of water: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei?

--1. Sea lanes crossing the South China Sea are vital for oil shipments from the Middle East to Japan.

-- 2. Oil and gas deposits in the contested land and sea are bigger than Kuwait’s.

-- 3. Fishing is lucrative in the relatively untapped waterway.

-- 4. Growing Chinese power sees small neighbors as obstacles and the U.S. as a rival.

China's official Liberation Army Daily warned the United States April 21 that U.S.-Philippine military exercises have raised the risk of armed confrontation in the South China Sea.

China has historically been prickly and blustery in its relations with other nations but its major interest has been control of its land mass. It does not appear to threaten weak neighbors like Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Burma or Laos, preferring economic expansion to military expeditions. In fact, the one notable exception was in 1979 when it tried to teach Vietnam “a lesson,” leaving 50,000 Chinese dead as the battle-hardened Vietnamese taught the teacher a thing or two.

But if you touch on core geographic interests and suggest Taiwan really is an independent country, Tibet needs some autonomy or Kashgar people have rights, you get a visceral, hostile reaction.

The absolutist attitude over what it sees as its core geographic interest has been extended to include the South China Sea for the past two decades. Angry editorials in the China Daily threaten the Philippines, saying its American protector won’t be around to help them and it should sit down alone at the table with China.

In recent years, the U.S. has been preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, reducing its engagement in South East Asia from Thailand to the Philippines – especially after 1991 when the U.S. pulled out of its largest overseas bases: Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Airbase, both in the Philippines.

Just last year, the United States reversed that trend and declared a “pivot” that will restore U.S. attention to East Asia. Washington sent 2,500 troops to Australia and renewed support for its regional allies – possibly to make up for two decades of neglect or to counter growing Chinese investment in a blue water navy. The U.S. also improved ties with Burma (Myanmar) which cancelled a major Chinese dam project.

East Asia grew rich in the 1980s under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Even Vietnam, the country that defeated us in 1975, prospered under the pax Pacifica Americana. A return to those good old days would be calming: apart from Chinese bullying the region faces Islamist terrorism in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The U.S. rightfully is standing by our smaller allies in insisting that a negotiated resolution of competing claims to the South China Sea not be held bilaterally – in which each small nation would have to sit alone facing giant China. Instead, U.S. policy aims to bring all six claimants to the table together so they can counterbalance China’s weight.

The risks are great. Warships standing bow to bow over a speck of sand and rock in the sea can suddenly explode into an escalating conflict that would drag in the United States. This can also happen if our small allies wrongfully believe they have a blank check from the U.S. military to open fire in the expectation that the U.S. fleet will be standing behind them.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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