Chinese Territorial Assertions: The Case of the Mischief
China has on-going
disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei
regarding conflicting claims of sovereignty over different islands
in the Spratly group in the South China Sea, but its assertion of
its claim over the Mischief Reef at the expense of the Philippines
is an educative case study of how China doggedly pursues its
irredentist territorial claims - by stealth, if possible, and by
other means, including force, if necessary.
The Spratly group consists of 12 main islands and 390 islets,
banks, reefs, shoals and cays, of which only 33 permanently rise
above the sea and only seven of these have an area of more than 0.5
sq.kms. The islands and other features lie in an area of about 400
nautical miles from East to West and about 500 nautical miles from
North to South. The sea areas contained by these features constitute
about 38 per cent of the South China Sea.
According to legal experts, the 33 features, which are
permanently above the sea, would be entitled, under international
law, to have 12 nautical miles of territorial sea, while 26 of these
could have Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf claims.
None of the other features could have any such entitlement since
they are not permanently above the sea.
Widely conflicting estimates of huge oil and gas deposits in the
area, which could make it as rich as the Kuwait region , are yet to
be proved by exploration. Amongst those to have made such claims are
the Chinese Ministry for Geology and Mineral Resources (oil and gas
reserves of 17.7 billion tonnes as against Kuwait's 13 billion
tonnes), some scientists of the Russian Research Institute of
Geology of Foreign Countries (at least 10 billion tonnes) , Ji
Guoxing, Director of the Asia-Pacific Department of the Shanghai
Institute For International Studies (10 billion tonnes of oil and 25
billion cubic metres of gas) and the book (author anonymous)" Can
China's Armed Forces Win The Next War?" ( 35 billion tonnes) .
Amongst the skeptics doubting these estimates is E.F.Durkee,
General Manager of the E.F.Durkee and Associates of Manila, who had
worked as technical adviser to the Crestone Energy Corporation of
the US during its negotiations with Beijing in 1992 on exploration
Durkee wrote in the "Far Eastern Economic Review" of March
9,1995, as follows: " Though media and politicians love to talk
about oil in the Spratlys, there is not one shred of evidence to
support the claim. Other than a small amount of gas and a few
barrels of condensate produced at Sampaquita 1 and 3A in 1976 in the
Reed Bank within Philippine territory, there have been no reported
hydrocarbons ever produced from the Spratly islands area. If the
objective is gas and oil, the Spratlys are hardly worth the risk of
Many analysts are agreed that prospects of oil and gas are not
the main motive for the Chinese policy with regard to the Spratlys.
A more important factor is China's irredentist impulse and its
desire to prevent any sea-borne threat to South China from the South
China Sea. Its irredentist motives are evident from its description
of the islands as historically having belonged to China and its
description of the South China Sea as "China's historical
Its readiness to use force to protect its rights was reflected in
the debate on the passage of the "Law of the People's Republic of
China on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone" in the National
People's Congress in February,1992. During the debate, the Chinese
authorities reiterated China's historic claim over the entire
Spratly group and underlined China's right to use force to evict any
China has been pursuing a policy of calculated ambiguity. It has
never spelt out in detail what exactly it claims - only some islands
or all the islands, the South China Sea itself as its territorial
waters, does it look upon the Spratlys as an archipelago belonging
to it ? If so, what happens to the air and sea navigation rights of
other countries ?
The absence of clear-cut answers to these vital questions has
added to the concerns of not only the regional countries, but also
others outside the region.
Before 1994, China followed a two-pronged policy in the assertion
of its claims. In asserting its claims vis-à-vis Vietnam, it used
polemics, often accompanied or followed by ground action to enforce
its claims. Vis-à-vis the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, it
restricted itself mostly to verbal reiteration of its claims without
any ground action to the detriment of these countries.
This was the period ( particularly in the 1980s), when the
Philippines still had close military relations with the US with the
latter enjoying base facilities in the Philippines, China was
developing its economy for which it was dependent on investment
flows from the overseas Chinese of the region , it was trying to
strengthen its relations with the ASEAN countries and allay their
fears of China and the prevailing atmosphere in the US was still
strongly distrustful of China.
The Chinese leadership was still scrupulously adhering to Deng
Xiao-Ping's 1989 advice to "fear no one, antagonise no one, avoid
excessively provocative statements or actions, assume a low profile
and don't take the lead."
The post-1994 period has seen a more confident China aware of its
growing economic and military strength and willing to use that
strength in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives. This confidence
has been bolstered by the toning down of the anti-China reflexes of
the US Administration - though not yet of the Congress - and by the
recent weakening of the economies of the ASEAN countries and its
impact on their military capability.
This new-found confidence has been reflected in the Chinese
readiness to advance their claims vis-à-vis the Philippines by
ground action too, if necessary, unmindful of adverse international
In the last week of January,1995, the Captain of a Filipino
fishing boat reported to the Manila authorities that some Chinese,
who had occupied the Mischief Reef claimed by the Philippines, had
detained him and his boat when he went there for fishing and
released them after a week.
Subsequently, the Mayor of the Pag-asa island confirmed the
presence of the Chinese and reported that when he went there , as
ordered by Manila, for verification, his boat was driven away by
some Chinese ships stationed there.
On February 2,1995, the Filipino Government sent a naval ship and
an aircraft for verification. Thereafter, the then President Fidel
Ramos announced on February 5,1995, that the Chinese had illegally
occupied the Reef and described their action as inconsistent with
international law and principles of good relations. He also
announced that Manila was lodging a protest with Beijing.
Reacting to Manila's allegations, Chen Jian, a spokesman of the
Chinese Foreign Ministry, said: " Structures had been built on the
Reef by China to ensure the safety and lives as well as the
production operations of the fishermen who work in the waters of the
Nansha ( Spratly) Islands. The Chinese side never detained nor
arrested any Filipino ship nor established any military base on the
Meiji (Mischief) Reef."
Nguyen Manh Cam, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, was on a visit
to Manila when Ramos announced the Chinese occupation of the Reef.
Without specifically referring to the Reef, a joint
Filipino-Vietnamese statement on February 6,1995, urged restraint
and the Vietnamese Minister told Manila pressmen that the dispute
should be settled peacefully and that "no one should do anything to
make the situation more complex."
Roberto Romulo, the then Filipino Foreign Secretary, said: "
Whoever resorts to force or aggression in that area is the first one
who loses all moral and legal right to make a claim."
The Chinese action created alarm amongst the ASEAN
member-countries because this was the first time that China had
unilaterally changed the status quo at the expense of a claimant
other than Vietnam and covertly established its presence in waters
and in an area claimed by the Philippines as falling within its
Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Mischief Reef, which the Philippines calls the Panganiban
Reef, is 150 miles West of Palawan, the Philippines' nearest land
mass, and 620 miles South-East of China. The Pag-asa island of the
Spratly group, which is under the administrative control of the
Philippines since 1973, is 135 kms to the North-West of the
On February 15,1995, Ramos ordered the strengthening of Filipino
military forces in the remaining areas claimed by his country and
the intensification of aerial surveillance over the area.
After a meeting of his National Security Council the same day, he
said that the Philippines would exhaust all diplomatic options and
added: " As part of this diplomatic effort, the Philippines has put
forward as an interim measure the concept of stewardship. Each
disputed island should be placed under the stewardship, meaning the
primary responsibility, of the claimant country closest to it
geographically, on the understanding that the steward country
accommodates the other claimants' need for shelter, anchorage and
other peaceful pursuits."
In an apparent attempt to project the issue as a multilateral
problem, Ramos said that "the issue is of concern to all countries
interested in the long-term stability of the South China Sea and the
East Asian region as a whole."
According to him, by building military structures on the Reef,
China had unilaterally changed the status quo and confronted the
Philippines with a fait accompli. He also revealed that in response
to Manila's protest, Beijing had claimed that the occupation of the
Reef was " ordered by low-level functionaries acting without the
knowledge and consent of the Chinese Government."
This gave rise to speculation that the PLA (Navy) might have
acted on its own without the knowledge of the political leadership,
but this was proved wrong by a statement of Qian Qichen, the then
Chinese Foreign Minister, on March 10,1995, which clearly showed
that the political leadership approved of the occupation.
He said: " Ours is not a military activity and will pose no
threat to other countries. Chinese fishermen have been traditionally
fishing in the region and shelters have been built to protect them.
China has had sovereignty over the islands since ancient times and
there were no disputes. Just in the late 70s, some countries made
claims over the islands. China has shown restraint and is willing to
develop the region in a co-operative way, setting aside
A team of Filipino officials led by Rodolfo Severino, Under
Secretary in the Foreign Office, was sent by Ramos to Beijing for
talks with the Chinese authorities on March 22,1995. On his way,
Severino went to Singapore for meeting his ASEAN counterparts. They
issued a joint statement expressing " their serious concern over
recent developments which affect peace and stability in the South
The Beijing talks failed. Severino said after the talks: " The
Chinese continued to maintain their position that these structures
are wind shelters for their fishermen. We believe that this has set
back the moves towards confidence-building since 1990."
Commenting on the failure, Ramos said on March 23,1995: " They
(the Chinese) are saying , we are a big country and if we are trying
to send some additional ships, that is for our coastal defence. But,
maybe, that should not just be taken as a simple explanation. Maybe,
it could be used for South China Sea intervention. But, I hope they
stay within what they are telling us."
After the failure of the Beijing talks, the Filipino Navy removed
the markers on a number of reefs, atolls and other features in the
Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone which had been put up by the
Chinese though they had not set up any physical presence on those
features. It also started intercepting Chinese fishing boats
intruding into the Filipino zone.
Reacting to this, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Office,
warned at Beijing:
" This action will do no good to a settlement of the issue nor
will it harm China's sovereignty." In an interview to the "Far
Eastern Economic Review" of April 6,1995, Ramos said: " I will not
hesitate to take the necessary protective measures for our
At the instance of China, a meeting of Chinese and ASEAN Foreign
Office officials was held at Hangzhou in China on April 3-4, 1995,
to discuss measures for reducing tension. Rodolfo Severino, who
represented the Philippines, claimed after the meeting that Chinese
officials said for the first time that they were planning to modify
their claims to ownership , not of the entire sea, but only of the
islands, reefs and other physical features in the sea.
He then pointed out: " Under international law, a country can
claim sovereignty over the waters 200 kms from its land. The
territorial claims around one reef, for instance, would still
overlap with our territorial boundary and some of them would come
very, very close to Palawan."
Qian Qichen, who was in Europe at the time of the Hangzhou
meeting, told pressmen at Bratislava on April 4,1995, that China
wanted to end the controversy and called for common use of the
islands. He added: " China's standpoint is that we want to abandon
the controversy and manage the islands together. China has built on
these islands civilian structures with no military character at all.
They were built only to accommodate the work of our fishermen."
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore was in China on a
bilateral visit in May,1995. According to the Singapore authorities,
he had raised with the then Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng on May
11,1995, the question of sovereignty and navigation in the South
China Sea and they had discussed whether sovereignty covered not
only sea lanes, but also the air space.
While the Singapore officials did not indicate what was the
Chinese response, the Xinhua news agency quoted Shen, a spokesman of
the Chinese Foreign Ministry,as stating as follows on May 18,1995: "
On the issue of the navigation rights in the South China Sea, the
Chinese Government holds a definite and clear-cut position, namely,
China's action to safeguard its sovereignty over the Nansha
(Spratly) Islands and the relevant maritime rights and interests
will not affect navigation through and the freedom and safety of
flights over the international waterway of the South China Sea in
keeping with the international laws."
There was fresh tension on May 13,1995, when the Filipino Defence
Ministry officials arranged a visit to the vicinity of the Mischief
Reef on board a naval vessel for a party of 38 local and foreign
journalists. The aim was to show them that contrary to its stand
that there were no military structures on the Reef, China was
actually constructing military-like fortifications on the Reef
similar to those which it had constructed in the past on the Johnson
and Subi reefs.
When the Filipino naval ship was 10 kms from the Mischief Reef,
two Chinese frigates from the direction of the Johnson Reef , about
100 kms to the West, blocked its passage.
On May 15,1995, Guan Deng-Min, the new Chinese Ambassador to the
Philippines, handed over to Ramos a letter from President Jiang
Zemin proposing that China and the Philippines jointly develop some
of the Spratly islands and undertake projects such as research,
environment protection, rescue operations, disaster prevention and
fisheries. A Manila Foreign Office spokesman said that Ramos told
the Ambassador that talks on any such projects should include other
Apparently, Jiang's conciliatory letter had been sent from
Beijing before the incident of May 13,1995, because on May 16,1995,
Beijing reacted strongly to Manila's action in taking journalists to
the vicinity of the Mischief Reef. A Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesman warned that " any similar action could result in serious
consequences. We advise the other side not to misinterpret China's
restraint, but , instead, to return to the correct path of
negotiations to resolve the dispute."
When the Mischief Reef dispute came to the fore in February,
1995, the Clinton Administration reacted cautiously and confined
itself to a reiteration of its long-standing policy on the South
China Sea. The State Department said: " The US strongly opposes the
threat or use of military force to assert any nation's claim. The US
takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims and is
willing to assist in the peaceful resolution of the dispute."
On instructions from Manila, the Filipino Embassy in Washington
contacted many Congressmen and lobbied for a stronger expression of
US support. In response to this, in March,1995, Benjamin Gilman,
Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, tabled a
resolution warning China against using force or intimidation in the
The resolution added that the " right of free passage through the
South China Sea is in the national security interests of the US" and
called on Clinton to review the defence requirements of the "
democratic claimants." Gilman said: " In order to avoid a future
confrontation that we might lose, we had better shore up the
defences of our democratic friends and allies in the region."
In a slightly stronger reaction on May 10,1995, the State
Department said: " The US would view with serious concern any
maritime claim or restriction on maritime activity in the South
China Sea that was not consistent with international law."
Later, while talking to pressmen at Tokyo , Joseph Nye, then US
Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security, said : "
If military action occurred in the Spratlys and this interfered with
the freedom of the seas, then we would be prepared to escort and
make sure that navigation continues." The Spratly islands are strewn
across sea routes through which 25 per cent of the world's shipping
passes, including oil supertankers for Taiwan, Japan and South
A Pentagon study explained the US position as follows: " The US
takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims. Our
strategic interest in maintaining the lines of communication linking
South-East Asia, North-East Asia and the Indian Ocean makes it
essential that we resist any maritime claims beyond those permitted
by the Law of the Sea Convention."
The dispute became the subject of intense discussions by various
experts in the US, including a series of panel discussions organised
by the Congressionally-funded US Institute of Peace. The views of
the experts could be summed up as follows:
(a).Energy requirement was not China's principal motive. The need
to make foreigners recognise its sovereignty was a more important
factor. Even if China did not need the oil and gas of the South
China Sea, its position may not change.
(b).In Chinese perception, control over the South China Sea would
constitute effective forward defence against intrusions that had
historically come from the Southern seas. They view the South China
Sea as a necessary component of an inner defence zone against
military intervention from the South-East. The thrust of China's
rapid reaction ground forces is primarily towards Southern
( c ). The Chinese policy enjoyed the support of the political
leadership and was not the result of rogue action by the PLA as
believed by some.
(d).China's continued dependence on foreign investment flows
would rule out any adventurist action to enforce its claims in the
(e).In Chinese perception, time was on their side and
re-unification of Taiwan was a more important priority and they
could, therefore, afford to wait.
There were two significant developments in July,1995. Before the
meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at Brunei, Ali Alatas, the
Indonesian Foreign Minister, visited Beijing on July 19,1995, to
discuss the South China Sea developments. This was the first visit
by an Indonesian Foreign Minister to China since the two countries
restored diplomatic relations in 1990 .
Towards the end of July,1995, a contingent of US navy commandos
arrived at Puerto Princesa, the headquarters of the Philippines
Western Military Command, to train Filipino troops stationed in the
Spratly group islands under its control. A joint study was
undertaken of Manila's defence requirements in the light of the new
situation in the South China Sea and as to what extent the US could
A proposal was mooted by a group of Filipino Congressmen,
including Jose de Venecia, the Speaker of the House of
Representatives, that the Philippines should again invite US naval
ships in the region to come to the Subic Bay for repairs and
re-fitting. The Ramos Government did not, however, accept it.
These indications of a possible revival of active military
co-operation between the US and the Philippines seemed to have had a
sobering effect on Beijing. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers, who had
gathered at Brunei for the ARF meeting from July 28 to August
1,1995, were pleasantly surprised to find Qian Qichen giving
indications of less rigidity.
Firstly, he expressed China's readiness to discuss the issue with
all the ASEAN claimants , thereby reversing its previous insistence
that it would discuss this only bilaterally with each claimant.
Secondly, while reiterating China's claim of "indisputable
sovereignty" over the Spratlys, he indicated that China would be
willing to recognise international laws, including the 1982 UN
Convention on the Law of the Seas, as a basis for settling the
differences. At the same time, he opposed the involvement of
non-ASEAN outside powers in the negotiations.
Commenting on this, Domingo Siazon, the then Filipino Foreign
Secretary, said: " I would not call it a concession. However, I
think China is now having a position of opening the door to a
possible political compromise. That was not the case when claims
were based only on historical rights."
Ali Alatas said: " On the basis of the UN Law of the Seas, there
is no more guessing how you draw lines for an Exclusive Economic
Zone or a continental shelf. There are no more disputes over what
are considered the lines of an archipelago state."
A US State Department spokesman said: " The tone of China
referring to international law and the Law of the Seas gives greater
possibility of trying to find a diplomatic solution, even though
China hasn't changed its fundamental position on its sovereignty
In a further positive development, Manila and Beijing announced
on August 10,1995, that they had reached a "Code of Conduct" for
resolving their dispute peacefully. They stated that while joint
review committees would be set up under the Code to review
possibilities for joint development and management of the islands,
China would be setting up a panel to review "legal rights" to the
However, China declined to sign the protocol to the Agreement on
the Creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in South-East Asia which
was concluded at the ASEAN summit at Bangkok in the second week of
Its objection was to the inclusion of the Exclusive Economic
Zone/continental shelf claim areas of the Philippines, Malaysia,
Brunei and Vietnam in the Treaty area. China thereby made it
apparent that its agreement to discuss the Spratly issue with the
ASEAN members on the basis of the Law of the Seas and other
international laws should not lead to an assumption that it had
accepted or would accept the claims of these four ASEAN
The matter rested there during 1996 and 1997, without any
significant forward movement in resolving the dispute. In 1996,
China was preoccupied with its confrontation with Taiwan and its
sequel. This and the various controversies regarding possible flow
of Chinese political contributions during the US elections of 1996
revived the distrust of China in the US.
However, since the middle of 1997, China has managed to improve
its image in the US and Clinton's visit to China last year marked
the implicit recognition by the Clinton administration of China's
political primacy in this region. The weakening of the economies of
the ASEAN countries and its impact on their military capability and
political stability , the emergence of signs of differences amongst
the ASEAN member-countries on various issues and the preoccupation
of the usually China-hostile conservative members of the US Congress
with the impeachment of Clinton constitute the setting against which
one has to see the renewed activism of China in the South China Sea
In the last week of October,1998, a Filipino military
surveillance aircraft reportedly noticed many Chinese ships,
including four naval supply ships, off the Mischief Reef , with
about 100 workers busy constructing what the Filipino authorities
suspected was a landing strip for aircraft.
Rejecting Manila's allegations of construction of new military
structures on the Reef, Beijing claimed that it was only replacing
the temporary shelters for fishermen constructed in 1995 with
President Joseph Estrada announced on November 10,1998,that he
was sending additional forces into the area to monitor the Chinese
activities and instructed the Navy and the Air Force "to block exit
and entry points" to the disputed area without getting involved in a
A spokesman of the Philippines Government announced on November
30,1998, that their Navy had seized six Chinese fishing boats in
Filipino waters and arrested 20 fishermen. Manila rejected a Chinese
demand for the release of the fishermen and said they would be
prosecuted for trespassing into Filipino territorial waters.
During a tour of the East Asian region in the beginning of
December,1998, Admiral Joseph Prueher, Commander of the US forces in
the Pacific, said that the US was closely watching the developments
and added: " If nations feel like they have a strong card to play,
they will try to do it, when they think they can get away with it.
This is perhaps what China is trying to do in the Mischief
Apart from this, in contrast to 1995, there has hardly been any
strong reaction either from the US or from other ASEAN countries
preoccupied with their economic and social problems. Dr. Mahatir
Mohammad of Malaysia has apparently not forgiven Estrada for
sympathising with Anwar Ibrahim, his sacked Deputy Prime Minister.
China had contributed to Thailand's rescue package in 1997 and hence
Bangkok was not in a position to react. Anyhow, even in 1995,
Bangkok avoided strong reactions.
Singapore seems to be skeptical of the allegations of Manila and
declines to see Beijing's fresh activity as encouraged by the
preoccupation of the ASEAN countries with their economic woes.
Thus, the only important foreign personality who has strongly
come out against Beijing so far is US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher,
a senior member of the House International Relations Committee.
After flying over the area in a Filipino aircraft on December
10,1998, he described the fresh Chinese activities in the Reef as
alarming and sinister and strongly condemned the silence of the
Clinton Administration on the development.
Latest reports indicate that China has gone back on its 1995
promise to discuss the dispute with all the ASEAN claimants and has
reverted to its original stand that it would discuss only
bilaterally with each claimant. It seems to be even dragging its
feet on its 1995 proposals for joint development of the disputed
Expressing the frustration of the Manila authorities, Blas Ople,
Chairman of the Philippines Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said
in an interview to the "Newsweek" of December 21,1998: " Great
powers, very often, probe for soft spots. They determine whether
they can make some gains at very little or negligible cost.
Throughout history, that is how great powers have conducted
themselves. China is no different."
Author: By B.Raman, Institute For Topical
Date: 14 January 1999